Affordances are the activities a design makes possible. A basic definition of design is any artificial outcome created to be used. The uses themselves are the things a design affords. Some activities a design outcome affords are not always intended. For example, an iPhone can be used to make calls, but it can also be used as a paperweight to hold down a stack of papers on a windy day.

Affordances have been the subject of much debate in design—whether they must be intended affordances or simply be perceived (and, in turn, relative to the perceiver’s concept of what the design can do). In the AoE4D framework, affordances are anything a design outcome can do. Well-designed outcomes feature signifiers that denote activities a product, service, or system affords users.

Affordances can be “added” to existing design outcomes. Let’s say you own a house in Oxford, Ohio. The summers are nice in Oxford, but there can be a lot of bugs. You would like to spend some time outside on a patio, but your home doesn’t have one. Adding a patio means you add an affordance—your home now affords you the ability to sit outside and enjoy the summer days. The only downside is you didn’t have enough money to get a screened-in patio, so the bugs are bad. Adding screens to the patio adds a new affordance—your patio now makes it possible for you to sit outside and not be eaten by bugs. Now, only if we had a ceiling fan… (if you’re a homeowner, you likely know how this “constant updates” cycle feels).

Design outcomes exist to be used. According to designer and UX Guru Don Norman, a successful design should clarify its affordances to users. A steering wheel in a car communicates its use pretty easily by its form. A telephone in the shape of a Pizza Inn guy—not so. A phone like this is cute but confusing because it does not clearly communicate its phone-ness.

Let’s go back to 1994 and hear about affordances from Don:

Yeah, you saw that right. The video was originally from a CD-ROM.

When developing a design outcome, pay attention to the affordances it offers. Are these clearly communicated to the person using it? Are there unintended affordances the design presents? The clearer and simpler the affordances, the more likely a person will use the design effortlessly. And as Don said, don’t be surprised if people use your design in ways you didn’t expect.

Examples of Affordances

A coffee cup is designed to hold liquid and its handle makes the cup easy to hold without burning your hand. The cup usually has a broad rim which affords the drinker easy sipping. A coffee cup is not designed to hammer nails into wood. You could try it, but the ceramic mug would likely shatter. You could squash a bug with a coffee cup, and it would probably do the job ok—as long as you didn’t slam it down too hard (some bugs are coffee cup-resistant).

Researching Affordances

Researching affordances helps designers better understand an outcome’s signifiers—the messages it communicates to users that indicate how it should be used. When researching affordances, don’t ignore a product, service, or system’s unintended uses. When people use design outcomes in ways that aren’t expected, it can suggest features that could be added to an outcome to improve the overall user experience.

Questions to Ask

  • What could be done with this design?
  • What activities does the design signify are its affordances?
  • What unintended activities could be completed with the design?

Look For…

  • Buttons
  • What can be made because of it
  • What it can not do
  • What can be done with it that was never intended
  • What people do with a design when they improvise
  • Symbols or markings are used to denote how it should be used

Related Concepts

  • Signifiers
  • Symbols
  • Semiotics



Updated: June 21, 2024 12:03 pm
a white man holding a blue coffee mug by the handle
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