What is Affordance in UX Design? Types and Best Practices
What is an affordance in UX design? Learn about the importance and role of affordances in physical and digital designs and the best practices.
Written by RamotionDec 11, 202312 min read
Last updated: Feb 6, 2024
Whenever we come across a design, whether it includes a physical object or digital interactions, we have a few goals in mind – the things we want to achieve by this interaction. On the other hand, there are several ways in which the design allows – or hinders – us from achieving those goals.
The resulting interaction is not entirely dependent on human actions or the features of the design. It is, in fact, a combination of both – where humans and technologies work collaboratively in the digital and physical worlds.
UX design is all about working with the users, conducting user research, helping people achieve their goals, and making their lives easier. The extent to which a design allows the users to achieve their goals defines whether it is user-friendly.
For any product, the ease of use is directly related to accomplishing users’ goals. It is essential to consider the features and capabilities of designs that provide particular possibilities to users.
In this article, we introduce the idea of affordances in UX design and how designers can create better affordances to improve users' overall experience. We also discuss the types of affordances and the role of such features in the UI/UX design field.
Read along as we talk about the importance of affordances and how learning about affordances is important for designers. This knowledge and the ability to design practical affordances can improve the chances of getting hired and becoming better UX design experts.
Understanding Affordances in UX Design
The concept of affordances is an interesting one for UX designers. The concept itself is simple but often needs clarification with other terms, making it slightly tricky to understand. Generally, affordance refers to any aspect, characteristic, or feature a product or service provides.
Regarding UI/UX design, the meaning of affordances changes a little. In the design field, affordances refer to the distinguishing aspects of a design that aid or hinder the users as they try to accomplish their goals when interacting with a product or service.
This understanding comes from Gibson’s theory of affordance, which was published in 1979. Gibson points out that the affordance of any environment is “what it provides or furnishes,” which also holds for a digital interface.
What is an affordance in UX design?
The affordance of any design, whether physical or digital, is the property allowing users to interact with it in a certain way. An affordance enables the users to perform specific actions – and stops them from certain other actions.
Specific affordances' presence – or absence – significantly impacts the overall user experience. The actions that an artifact allows – or does not allow – can affect the users in a good or bad manner, depending on the context and their needs. It is important to note that the actual affordance of any design only comes to the fore during the interaction.
This is to say that a product itself cannot do much unless the users interact with it and bring its affordances to life. A good affordance, therefore, focuses on users' needs, helping them accomplish their tasks.
Why do affordances matter?
Affordances have a huge significance for any design, whether in the digital or physical world. Good affordances can direct users in the right manner, working with them as they try to accomplish their goals. Additionally, affordances help in creating useful and effective designs.
When designers include appropriate affordances in their products, they add value to the interaction, making the experience more interactive and user-friendly.
Another important thing to note is that clarity in affordances prevents errors and mistakes during the interaction. A reduction in user error directly influences the level of satisfaction with a product or service, thus improving the experience.
Affordances and signifiers
In the field of UI/UX design, a common confusion is found between the terms affordances and signifiers. Designers need to understand this difference to create effective designs and better interactions.
Affordances are the capabilities or features of a user interface, i.e., all the things that can be done when interacting with a design.
Signifiers, on the other hand, refer to the indications or guidelines that come with an affordance, i.e., a way to guide users before and during the interaction.
For example, the affordance of a simple push door is that it can open, and the users can walk in and out of a physical space by pushing a lever or handle.
A small sign, in the form of text or visuals, indicating what the users have to do and where they have to push will serve as a signifier. It is essential to keep this consideration in mind when creating interactive designs.
Exploring Different Types of Affordances
There are several ways that users can interact with a design. Similarly, several aspects need to be considered when UX professionals design affordances. These affordances are an integral part of the design process.
From physical to false affordances and graphic to metaphorical affordances, UX designers must be aware of the basic concepts and the nature of these essential types.
What are the major types of affordances in UX design?
Following are some important types of affordances for designers to consider.
- Physical affordances
- Functional affordances
- Graphic affordances
- Social affordances
- Disaffordances and dysaffordances
Some of the most important affordances that UX designers usually come across are as follows.
1. Physical affordances
Physical affordances, as the name suggests, are the ones that relate to the physical appearance and outlook of a design. For example, a push button or a door with a handle physically suggests to the users what to do and how to interact with them based on their appearance.
2. Functional affordances
Functional affordances have more to do with the actual action the users can take – or will take – for the affordance to become completely visible. Such affordances are most visible in the digital environment.
For example, when a user hovers over a button, i.e., performs a function or drags an element on the screen, the functionality of these affordances becomes visible, guiding the user in the process.
3. Graphic affordances
Graphic affordances are, arguably, the most animated affordances. We can call them metaphorical affordances to some extent, as the users do not get a textual indication. Instead, graphic elements are used to create visual affordances.
For example, using icons and images to direct users in a particular direction indicates a use case of graphic affordances.
3. Social affordances
The concept of social affordances, introduced by Huatong Sun, is important for both physical and digital interfaces. Social affordances highlight the importance of prior knowledge and context when a user clicks on a certain element or interacts with a design in a particular manner.
This means that the affordances do not work in isolation, but the users also play a critical role in meaning-making.
4. Disaffordances and dysaffordances
Costanza-Chock talks about disaffordances and dysaffordances, particularly in the context of design justice. These affordances can be broadly categorized as false affordances that restrict the users from performing specific tasks, thus working against the user behavior.
For example, the benches that do not allow people to sleep or gender selection dialog boxes that only have “Male” and “Female” options.
The Role and Use of Affordances in UX
Affordances play a critical role in any design, as these are the aspects that guide user interaction and experience to a great extent, creating user-friendly products and services. The best affordances are the ones that reduce user errors and create simple user interfaces.
Throughout the design process, UX professionals return to the concept of affordances, ensuring that the users’ needs are met in the best ways possible. Affordances help align users’ goals and provide designers with several opportunities, as discussed below.
Align affordances with users’ goals
Affordances help in bridging the gap between users’ goals and the features of a product or service. Better affordances help the users accomplish their goals and also serve as a guide for them before and during the interaction.
UX designers focus on clear affordances by using familiar patterns and elements so the users do not spend much time learning a new type of interaction.
Use as an opportunity to innovate
The presence or provision of affordances is also an opportunity for designers to innovate. This can be achieved by making small changes in the interaction and introducing new features gradually.
If the focus here is on the learning process, the users can make the most of their experience.
Gain competitive advantage
Good affordances also leave a significant impact on the overall performance and image of an organization. A product can gain a competitive advantage by designing better affordances and take a step ahead in the market.
When the users find a simple, better experience in a product, they are most likely to be loyal to that instead of the alternatives.
Designing Effective Affordances
UI/UX designers always aim to create effective affordances. On the one hand, good affordances provide a consistent user experience; on the other, these help highlight the critical features of any design, making sure that the users make the most of those.
What are some best practices for designing effective affordances?
Following are some best practices for designers when working on affordances.
- Understand the needs of users
- Create logical affordances based on the user journey
- Focus on the basic principles of design
- Use clear signifiers to direct users
- Keep the cues simple and clear
Some best practices for designers to create effective affordances are listed below.
Understand the needs of users
Like any UX design strategy, designers must focus on users’ expectations and needs when leveraging affordances. A good affordance prioritizes the needs and comfort of the users, making sure that the lives of users are made more accessible and their experiences become more satisfying.
Focusing on the changing conditions based on the devices is also essential. For example, smartphone interactions differ from desktop computers, and designers should consider these when designing affordances.
Create logical affordances based on the user journey
As a UX designer, focusing on micro and macro-level user interactions throughout the user journey is essential. The designers should create intuitive affordances based on user journey mapping so that the users understand the features and appropriately use them.
When it comes to different devices and screen sizes, the level and type of interaction can change, which designers should consider when creating practical affordances based on the user journey.
Focus on the basic principles of design
UX professionals should always stick to basic design principles when designing good affordances. These include the principles of familiarity with interfaces, simplicity in interactions, and aesthetics and visual design.
User-friendly designs are the ones that do not violate the basic principles of UX design, thus adding value to the overall experience.
Use clear signifiers to direct users
Affordances and signifiers work together to create an enriching and satisfying experience. Signifiers provide visual cues and make sure that a feature of a product or service is turned into an explicit affordance.
Clear signifiers also prevent user errors, making the affordance efficient and valuable. UX designers should always pay attention to the combination of affordances and signifiers.
Keep the cues simple and clear.
It is always essential to keep things simple regarding UX design. This holds when it comes to the design of explicit affordances. Good affordances are the ones that are not hard to look for and do not complicate the user experience.
Instead, these have clear visual cues and provide a seamless user experience.
Deepening the Understanding of Affordances
Affordances in UX design are a broad concept that requires a lot of care and attention, both when developing the understanding and applying it to designs. This section briefly introduces some important concepts and tips related to the design of affordances. You can look deeper at these concepts to learn more about this topic.
Other types of affordances
Some other types of affordances that often appear in the design of products and services are discussed below.
1. Hidden affordances
A hidden affordance only makes itself appear if the users perform some action. One example of hidden affordances is a drop-down menu that the users might have to click on or hover over to reveal the contents.
2. Pattern affordances
Pattern affordances are the ones that draw from the principle of familiarity and past experiences of the users, making the overall interaction understandable and enriching.
Similar to most hidden affordances, these are implicit affordances, where UX design patterns are used to highlight and showcase the affordance.
3. Negative affordances
Negative affordances are false affordances that restrict the users from performing specific actions. For example, an article behind the paywall, a website asking to accept the terms and conditions before moving forward, or an app asking to create an account in order to access the content.
Some quick tips for designing affordances
Some quick tips for UI/UX designers to create practical and explicit affordances are as follows.
- Follow design conventions and the basic principles of UX design. This will help create familiar experiences for the users to interact with the products effectively.
- Prioritize the needs of the users when working on the creation of affordances. If the users’ needs are the focal point of the design, all affordances and signifiers will be designed to help them accomplish their tasks.
- Make sure that you understand the context of design and use. Consider where and how the users will interact with a particular design, and design the affordances and interactions in a way that meets the needs of that setting. This practice applies to the design of any affordance, whether it is physical, pattern, or false affordance.
Affordances are a significant part of any design project, whether in the digital or the physical environment. The choice of design elements governs the ways users interact with the interface and try to accomplish their goals.
With the help of practical affordances, UX professionals can create user-friendly affordances, helping users achieve their goals and also do so in a satisfying manner.
For UI/UX professionals, it is essential to understand the significance of affordances and how to introduce them effectively in any design.
This article covered the basics of affordances and the best practices to introduce affordances in a design to create compelling, interactive, and satisfying user experiences.