UX basics to go: Affordance

In the category UX basics to go we present different user experience and usability basic terms. Exactly the right thing for everyone who wants to acquire basic knowledge about UX very quickly.

Today we look at: Affordance

Those who listen to a well-founded discussion about usability will sooner or later come across the term affordance. But we are all surrounded by affordances all the time. So, what does the term mean?

According to the official definition of UXQB, affordance is…

…the ability of an object to explain itself.
(UXQB: International Usability and User Experience Qualification Board).

The simplest example of an affordance is the handle on a cup: it is an obvious invitation to hold the cup accordingly.

If an object has a strong affordance, then it is very clear and unambiguous how to use it. Applied to digital products, for example, a button on a website offers an affordance to click on – as long as the user is intuitively aware of the consequences of the click. A skeumorphism buttons i.e. (a button that resembles a real switch through drop shadows or a 3D effect) features a greater affordance than a button in a flat design.

A step backwards for affordance? – Today, realistic skeumorphism buttons (left) are often replaced by the more modern flat design (right).

To enable new users of products or applications access as intuitively as possible, it is helpful to follow the following four basic principles:

  • Consider current conventions: For example, internet users have learned and are therefore used to clickable links hidden behind blue underlined words.
  • Label to achieve “correct” affordance: If icons are combined with labels, this can contribute to a more understandable and intuitive use of an interface.
  • Use metaphors: e.g. an envelope as an affordance for “write new e-mail” or a trash can for “delete”. Here, however, cultural conditions should be considered, as it can be an obstacle if metaphor is not understood correctly by the user.
  • Mind continuity: similar interactions should be designed similarly.

Who invented it?

The originator of the concept was the perception psychologist James J. Gibson (The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, 1979). Don Norman – usability pioneer and co-founder of the renowned Nielsen Norman Group – introduced the concept of affordance in the field of human-computer interaction (HCI). In his book “The Design of Everyday Things” (1988), he propagates the view that it is rarely the user’s fault, but usually a design failure, when the use of objects fails.

A large part of his work deals with the design of doors. In his opinion, most doors are not user-friendly – mainly due to a lack of affordance. Have you ever tried to open a door by pushing, even though there was a clear “pull” on it? If so, you have already made the acquaintance of a so-called “Norman Door”. This video shows that you are not alone in this.

Want to know more about UX?

Do you want to go directly deeper into the subject of usability? Maybe you are interested in our Facit Digital User Experience seminar. In this two-day training you can acquire all basic knowledge around usability and user experience.


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Theresa Amberger
Theresa Amberger
Als studierte Kommunikationswissenschaftlerin stellt Theresa viele Fragen und geht den Dingen gerne auf den Grund, so auch für die Blog-Reihe „Inside FaDi“. Im UX Consulting bei Facit Digital kann sie diese Leidenschaft mit ihrem Interesse an digitalen Trends und technologischen Neuerungen optimal vereinen.