Affordance - what is it?

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Web design should be intuitive; its affordances immediately apparent
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  • Updated.jpg 19 April 2016


See also Affordance definition | Human information interaction (HII) | Information architecture (IA) | Metadata | 3D printing | Semiotics and the web | Typography

Affordance is a design concept but one that is slippery as far as definitions go. How about this definition?: "...When objects or designs signal properties or functions, the affordance describes to us what they are used for or what they do. A handle on a drawer allows (or affords) us to push and pull the drawer. Similarly, a button on a digital page affords us to press it. If the affordance is used properly, a basic task should be easily utilized...". In designing online systems and user interfaces, it makes sense to make the affordances of those systems and interface as obvious to users as possible.

Connection to social media?

What is an affordance and can it help us understand the use of social media? The concept of affordance originated with Gibson’s theory but has subsequently been applied to everything from human-computer interaction (HCI) to information technologies. This entry locates key points of divergence within the use of ‘affordance’ as an evaluative tool, particularly how affordance draws on direct perceptions by the user. It concludes by arguing that affordance offers a distinctive view of social media as it focuses on possibilities for action.

Affordance is a design principle that is considered rather slippery. However, in designing online systems with user interfaces, it makes sense to make their affordances obvious to users. The following definitions are variations on that theme:

Definition of affordance


Wikipedia says that an " ...affordance is a quality of an object, or an environment, that allows an individual to perform an action."

  • "...affordances provide clues to the operation of something: knobs are for turning; slots are for inserting things into; balls are for throwing or bouncing. When affordances are taken advantage of, the user knows what to do just by looking: no picture, label, or instruction is needed." (Norman 1988, p.9)
  • Think about this in terms of Twitter. With Twitter, you can tell other people "what you are doing"; its constraint is 140 characters. But Twitter has forever altered the way that people interact and share information.... It now has affordances well beyond its original intention and design.
  • "Affordances are more than opportunities - they create new niches in the social ecology, which add opportunities and constraints, sometimes in surprising ways. Each new process and tool in a particular area of social interaction potentially interacts with, builds on, or displaces, the affordances which have been developed 'around' previous processes and tools."
  • One person's affordance is another's 'mess' (mindmaps) or one person's affordance (lists) is another person's uninformative and inflexible constraint. Perhaps the latter is what 'agendas' are meant to be: its what agendas are 'for'? If you are predominantly a 'linear and sequential' thinker, a mindmap is not in any way an 'affordance'. And vice versa: i.e, some artefacts are amenable to being engaged with in different ways, to create different affordances for different people. But some artefacts are only amenable to engagement for some people and not or others.

Affordances can also be thought of as the byproduct of interactions between someone and an object (or tool) each of which potentially will impact the knowledge, competencies and identity for the person; perhaps this interactivity even alters the (micro-) environments of both subject and object. Objects always, according to Roland Barthes, "say something" about their users and their capacity for action.


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