Affordance

The Basic Idea

Consider a human, a dog, and a shoe. For the human, the shoe enables them to carry out a range of actions including walking, running, kicking a ball, jumping, and stomping. For the dog, the shoe might allow them to complete other actions such as chewing, tearing, catching, or resting their head (all dependent on the dog’s mood at the time). 

Although the human and the dog are interacting with the same shoe, what the shoe can be and is used for differs depending on who is interacting with it. That is, the same object can afford a variety of actions to different users. 

An affordance is the relationship between the properties of an object and the capability of the user to determine just how the object should be used. In other words, affordances refer to the potential uses that an object or environment offers to an individual. For example, a chair affords sitting, a door handle affords grasping and turning, and a computer mouse affords pointing and clicking. We use signifiers, or perceptible cues and signals, to discover what actions are possible with the things we encounter. 

One of the most important things to remember about affordances is that they are defined by the relationship between the user and the object. More specifically, an affordance is not solely determined by the properties of the object but is also influenced by what a particular user can do with an object based on their abilities. 

A coffee mug, for example, affords an adult drinking, yet for a baby, it doesn’t. They cannot grasp the handle and don’t have the strength to pick it up. Similarly, affordances depend on the user’s needs and preferences at the time; coffee is likely to be appealing for an adult, while a baby would probably prefer another drink like milk or juice. 

An affordance cuts across the dichotomy of subjective-objective and helps us to understand its inadequacy. It is equally a fact of the environment and a fact of behavior. It is both physical and psychical, yet neither. An affordance points both ways, to the environment and to the observer.


James J. Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception

Key Terms

Signifier: In the context of affordances, a signifier is a visual or sensory indicator that communicates the potential actions or uses of an object or environment to an individual. 

Ecological approach: In psychology, an ecological approach focuses on how individuals perceive and act in their own environment. 

Action capabilities: The physical and mental capabilities of an actor that determine what they can or cannot do with an object or their environment. 

Aufforderungscharakter: Translated from German as ‘valence,’ the term was introduced by Kurt Lewin to describe the characteristics of objects that invite or demand behavior. 

History

Affordances, or the potential actions users can achieve with objects and their environment, are as old as life itself. For millennia, living organisms have been interacting with their environment, with the objects within it affording them potential actions. 

It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that the idea of affordances was actually conceptualized. James Gibson, an American psychologist specializing in the mechanisms of perception, invented the term to describe the complementary relationship between an organism and its environment. By introducing this new word, Gibson wanted to shift the focus in psychology from a traditional stimulus-response approach to a more ecological perspective. He tried to emphasize that perception is an active process that involves perceiving possibilities for action in the environment, rather than simply reacting to isolated stimuli. 

However, the origins of the concept of affordances can be traced further back to the 1930s. Now here’s where things get a little phenomenological. As part of his Field Theory of Learning, which proposed that behavior is the result of the individual and the environment, Kurt Lewin coined the term Aufforderungscharakter or ‘valence.’1 

For Lewin, valences are the characteristics of objects that invite or demand behavior, and they have corresponding vectors, or arrows, either pushing the observer away or toward an object. The valence does not belong to the physical object but to the phenomenal object. That is, the valence is bestowed upon the object by the experience and need of the user. Let’s consider an example: a post box has valence, or demand character, only when the observer needs to mail a letter. When the observer doesn’t need to mail a letter, the post box has no valence. 

Lewin’s Theory of Learning (Lewin, 1951)

Where Gibson’s concept of affordance differs from Lewin’s valence is that the affordance of an object doesn’t come and go with the needs of the user. The affordance is always there, according to the user’s needs, but may or may not be perceived by the observer. 

Affordances later gained prominence in the realm of cognitive psychology, particularly through the writings of Donald Norman. In his influential book The Design of Everyday Things2 first published in 1988, Norman popularized the concept within the context of design and usability. Norman’s definition of affordance is slightly different again from his predecessors, Lewin and Gibson. For him, affordances are action possibilities that a user must perceive or consider possible. He highlighted the importance of designing objects and interfaces that communicate their use through perceivable affordances, thus enhancing their usability. 

In recent years, affordances have become a fundamental principle in design theory, human-computer interaction, and user interface design. They help to guide the creation of products and environments that enhance the user experience by aligning with human cognition and behavior. As the application of the affordance has grown, so has the concept and definition. In the field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), for example, Rex Hartson, a professor of computer science, suggests four further types of affordance:3

  • Physical: The tangible aspects of the interaction, such as the input devices and the physical layout of the interface.
  • Cognitive: The mental processes involved in interacting with a system. This includes the user's ability to understand, learn, and remember how to use the interface efficiently.
  • Sensory: How users perceive and interpret elements within a user interface. It involves the visual and auditory cues that guide users in understanding the functionality of different components.
  • Functional: The actions that users can perform within a given interface. It encompasses the interactive elements and their intended functionalities.

People

James Gibson

American psychologist specializing in the mechanisms of perception who first introduced the concept of affordances in his book The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Alongside his influential Theory of Direct Perception, Gibson played a leading role in promoting ecological psychology. 

Eleanor Gibson

Research psychologist who made significant contributions to the study of perception and affordances. Together with her husband, James Gibson, she conducted extensive research on perceptual development, including the famous "visual cliff" experiments that explored depth perception in infants.

Donald Norman

Cognitive scientist and design theorist who significantly contributed to the understanding of affordances in the context of human-computer interaction. In his seminal book The Design of Everyday Things, Norman emphasized the importance of clear and intuitive affordances in design, with well-conceived perceptible cues to guide users in understanding their functionality.

Kurt Lewin

German-American psychologist and social scientist, widely recognized as one of the founding figures of modern social psychology. In particular, his work focused on applied research, action research, and group communication. 

Consequences

Affordances are crucial to how we function in everyday life. Well-designed and clear affordances contribute to the usability of products and systems, making them easier to learn and more efficient to use. They can also act as a safeguard against user errors by directing individuals toward intended actions, preventing confusion and frustration. Moreover, carefully considering affordances and the diverse capabilities of potential users can contribute significantly to making products more accessible to users with different abilities. 

But what happens if an affordance isn’t immediately obvious to a potential user? Imagine Netflix has just uploaded your favorite movie to their streaming catalog. Unfortunately, they didn’t advertise the new addition, neither through a notification nor on their app’s screensaver. Months later you find the movie by chance while scrolling through, but feel disappointed that you didn’t know that it was there earlier. 

Affordances work in the same way as Netflix movie uploads. It’s not enough to ensure that an affordance exists in our relationship to technology. You need to actually communicate it to potential users. Drop-down menus on websites and apps are a good example of this; we only know how to use them after learning about them through trial and error. A central pillar of good design, therefore, is to both include and communicate affordances to potential users. 

Controversies

As we saw earlier, the concept of affordance has expanded greatly since Gibson’s days. As the application of affordances diversifies, there comes a need to expand and adapt the way the concept is understood. While early definitions of affordances focussed on the one-to-one relationship between a user and an artifact (Gibson’s theory actually dealt explicitly with animals), researchers now argue that a broader understanding of the term is needed. Dhaval Vyas, Cristina Chisalita, and Alan Dix,4 for example, argue that an affordance is dynamic and that the social and cultural contexts within which an artifact is situated affect the way in which it is used. While we are of course animals, many question whether an animal-centric theory of affordances can fully encapsulate humans’ complex interaction with the world. 

In other spaces, researchers and practitioners argue that the concept of affordance is increasingly misunderstood and being misused.5 This issue primarily arises from the inconsistencies found between Norman’s interpretation of affordances and Gibson’s original concept. As such, debates still rage about the ontological nature of affordances, such as whether affordances actually need to be perceived in order to exist.6 

Case Studies

Virtual Learning Environments 

In a post-COVID world, online learning has become an everyday reality for students and educators all around the world. Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) are digital spaces in which learning occurs, enabling users to share content, tools, exercises, assessment modules, and any other necessary tools for education. Multiple studies have explored the affordances of VLEs, such as the integration of assessment into practice, making explicit pedagogical principles, and differentiated teaching strategies.

However, while technological affordances can improve learning outcomes, the reality can be slightly more complex. Angela Cirucci’s case study on Zoom’s platform, for example, explored how digital affordances in VLEs can impact marginalized university students’ identities, and therefore the quality of their learning.7 

During the research, students explained that they didn’t feel comfortable turning on their cameras during classes for fear of being judged on their physical appearance or background, despite professors explaining that this would lead to a better learning environment. The affordance of a virtual background was also deemed obsolete. Students believed that if you needed a virtual background, this automatically suggested you were embarrassed about your physical background. These findings were particularly relevant for female students who identified as Black, Indigenous, or people of color, and whose family income was below $50,000. So while digital affordances may be designed to enhance user experience, it always comes down to who the user is. 

Skeuomorphism

Anyone old enough to remember Apple’s operating system before the introduction of iOS7 (before September 2013) may recall the lifelike features of two of its applications. Notes appeared as a yellow-lined legal pad, and the Calendar was encased in a leather-bound folio. These are both examples of skeuomorphs: objects and features that copy the design of a similar artifact in another material.8 In the early days of digital interfaces icons and buttons often had realistic textures, shadows, and reflections to simulate the appearance of physical objects like buttons or switches.  

While skeuomorphic design arguably makes digital objects and interfaces more aesthetically pleasing, their real function is to help users understand what they should be used for and how to use them. By imitating real-world objects that users are already familiar with, skeuomorphs act as contextual cues that provide important perceptual information about unfamiliar objects. In other words, they are cultural affordances that help us to understand the possibility of action in unknown environments. 

However, design trends in recent years have shifted away from heavy skeuomorphism towards flatter and more minimalist design approaches. This move to what’s known as ‘flat design’ is often associated with modern design principles, where simplicity, clarity, and functionality take precedence over imitating physical objects. A good example of this is Apple which has largely moved away from skeuomorphic design in its digital interfaces and objects. The Notes app no longer appears as a yellow-lined legal pad, and the Calendar lost its leather texture.  

In a study conducted by David Oswald and Steffen Kolb during the eight months following Apple’s change from skeuomorphic to flat design, the authors found that the new design of iOS7 was perceived as more serious and professional over time.9 They suggested that affordances based on metaphor imitations (such as buttons that look like real-life buttons) were not needed anymore, because the majority of Apple users had become familiar with the features of the interface. 

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References

  1. Gibson, J. J. (1979). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Routledge.
  2. Norman, D. A. (1988). The Design of Everyday Things: Revised and Expanded Edition. New York: Basic Books. 
  3. Hartson, R. (2003). Cognitive, physical, sensory, and functional affordances in interaction design. Behaviour & Information Technology, 22(5), 315-338. 
  4. Vyas, D., Chisalita, C. M., & Dix, A. (2008). Dynamics of Affordances and Implications for Design. The University of Twente, Netherlands. 
  5. Burlamaqui, L., & Dong, A. (2015). The Use and Misuse of the Concept of Affordance. In Design Cognition and Computing ’14, 295-312. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-14956-1_17.
  6. Michaels, C. F. (2010). Affordances: Four Points of Debate. Ecological Psychology, 15:2, 135-148. 
  7. Cirucci, A. M. (2023). Zoom Affordances and Identity: A Case Study. Social Media + Society, 9(1). https://doi.org/10.1177/20563051221146176
  8. Interaction Design Foundation. (n.d.) Affordances. https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/book/the-encyclopedia-of-human-computer-interaction-2nd-ed/affordances
  9. Oswald, D., & Kolb, S. (2014). Flat Design vs. Skeuomorphism – Effects on Learnability and Image Attribution in Digital Product Interfaces. International Conference on Engineering and Product Design Education, 4 & 5 September 2014, University of Twente, Netherlands.
  10. Lewin, K. (1951). Field Theory of Social Science: Selected Theoretical Papers. New York: Harper & Brothers.

About the Author

Dr. Lauren Braithwaite

Dr. Lauren Braithwaite is a Social and Behaviour Change Design and Partnerships consultant working in the international development sector. Lauren has worked with education programmes in Afghanistan, Australia, Mexico, and Rwanda, and from 2017–2019 she was Artistic Director of the Afghan Women’s Orchestra. Lauren earned her PhD in Education and MSc in Musicology from the University of Oxford, and her BA in Music from the University of Cambridge. When she’s not putting pen to paper, Lauren enjoys running marathons and spending time with her two dogs.

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