The Nature of Affordance


If you’ve been involved in user experience or usability for a minute you’re probably familiar with the term “affordance”. An affordance can a button on a webpage, a handle on a coffee mug, or a light switch. When designing a user interface we might isolate a view and consider what we’re “affording” the user. What controls are we providing the user so they can complete the task at hand?

Calling a button an “affordance” might be pretentious, but it can be helpful if you suspect that a button might not be the best control. We might say, “What other affordance could we use to accomplish this task”.

We have a rule in our office. If you say “affordance” more than 5 times in a given day you have to buy everyone lunch.

While affordances are generally considered a good thing, our computers and devices seem to be getting packed with more and more of them. Affordances often compete for attention, cause confusion and overwhelm.

Controls need to be properly weighted, mixed, staged. It’s like cooking. You find the right balance of ingredients to achieve the desired flavor. The desired flavor in many cases is what your family likes to eat.

This has lead us to the ‘Nature of Affordance’. Meaning: If you put it out there, people will think they should use it.

Thinking of affordance in this way helps us curate what we put in front of our users (or customers), rather than overwhelm them with a litany of choices.