One of the most frustrating things about interacting with something, whether that’s an app, a website, or even a physical object, is to approach it and have no idea how to use it. Just think of all the times you’ve tried to push a door that you should have pulled, or all the times you’ve clicked on an icon on a website thinking it did one thing, when in reality it did the exact opposite. These small interactions, minor annoyances throughout your day, can build up and result in an overall negative user experience. It may not ruin your day, but it certainly could leave you with a negative feeling about an object.
Thankfully, designers have something up their sleeves to help prevent bad interactions like the ones described above: affordances. Coined by the Don Norman, a giant in the usability field, in his book The Design of Everyday Things, affordances are, at their most basic level, features of a design object (this could be a physical object, a website, a video game user interface) that provide information about how the object should be used. The textured, indented handle on a teapot is a good example, as is a door with a metal plate mounted at just above waist level, indicating that it should be pushed to open it.
Affordances are usually subtle and seem obvious when you notice them, but that’s because designers have been using affordances for so long (they existed before Don Norman gave them a name) that they seem invisible to most users. But that’s the point. An affordance should always serve to make an object more useful, but it shouldn’t be the star of the show. A keyboard certainly doesn’t require the presence of two ridges on the J and F keys to be able to function, but those little ridges can save a user countless moments of trying to find their bearings when they’re using it. Without the affordance of the ridges, of course, a user could eventually find they keys they’re looking for, but even if the ridges save half a second ten times a day, that can really add up over the course of a work week or career.
Affordances may seem like an obvious thing, maybe even something that a designer shouldn’t have to think about when they’re creating something, but the true value of affordances becomes very clear when you approach something that gives you no affordances to clue you in to how to use it.
Affordances are one of the most basic things about User Experience design, but they’re also one of the most important. They show that the best design is subtle, and that one of the best ways to encourage a user to use something the right way is to give them a clear path to interact with an object in the way you intended. With good affordances, the user doesn’t have to spend time thinking about what they can and can’t do with something, because the object itself is making that very clear. And this means that the user can instead focus on the task at hand, not how they’re supposed to use the tools to achieve what they’re wanting to accomplish.