Web design should be intuitive; its affordances immediately apparent
'Are you interested in contributing to HLWIKI International? contact
To browse other articles on a range of HSL topics, see the A-Z index.
- 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.
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.
- Baerentsen K, Trettvik J. An activity theory approach to affordance. ACM Int Conf Proc; University of Aarhus, Denmark. 2002;31:51–60.
- Bower M. Affordance analysis: matching learning tasks with learning technologies. Ed Media Intern. 2008;45(1):1–15.
- Brown J, Stillman G, Herbert S. Can the notion of affordances be of use in the design of a technology enriched Mathematics curriculum? In: Annual Conference of the Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia. Sydney, MERGA. 2004;1:119–126.
- Chemero A. An outline theory of affordances. Ecological Psychology. 2003;15(2):181–195.
- Conole G, Dyke M. What are the affordances of information and communication and technologies. ALT-J Research in Learning Technology. 2004;12(2):113–124.
- Derry J. Epistemology and conceptual resources for the development of learning technologies. J Computer Assisted Learning. 2007;23:503–510.
- Dillon P. Trajectories and tensions in the theory of information and communication technology in education. Brit J Ed Studies. 2004;52(2):138–150.
- Downes T. Blending play, practice and performance: children’s use of the computer at home. J Educational Enquiry. 2002;3(2):21.
- Gall M, Breeze N. Music composition lessons: the multimodal affordances of technology. Ed Rev. 2005;57(4):415–433.
- Gaver W. Situating Action II: affordances for interaction: the social is material for design. Ecological Psych. 1996;8(2):111–129.
- Gaver W. Technology affordances, Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems: New Orleans (79–84). United States: Louisiana, 1991.
- Gibson J. The ecological approach to visual perception. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1986.
- Greeno J. Gibson’s affordances. Psych Rev. 101(2):336–342.
- Hammond M. What does out past involvement with computers in education tell us? Association for Information Technology in Teacher Education 2009.
- Hutchby I. Technologies, texts and affordances. Sociology. 35:441–456.
- John P, Sutherland R. Affordance, opportunity and the pedagogical implications of ICT. Educational Review. 2005;57(4):405–423.
- Kennewell S. Using affordances and constraints to evaluate the use of information and communications technology in teaching and learning. J Info Tech Teacher Ed. 2001;10(1&2):101–116.
- Kennewell S. Analysing the use of interactive technology to implement interactive teaching. J Comp Assisted Learning. 2008;24(1):61–73.
- Latour B. Morality and technology, the end of the means. Theory, Culture and Society. 2002;19(5/6):247-260.
- Laurillard D. Affordances for learning in a non-linear narrative medium. J Interactive Media in Education. 2000 (2). http://www-jime.open.ac.uk/00/2
- McGrenere J. Affordances: clarifying and evolving a concept. Proceedings of Graphic Interface. 2000:179–186.
- Norman D. The psychology of everyday things. New York: Basic Books, 2002.
- Pea R. Practices of distributed intelligence and designs for education. In: Distributed Cognitions, Psychological and educational considerations. Cambridge
- Scarantino A. Affordance explained. Philosophy of Science. 2003;70:949–961.
- Turvey M. Affordances and prospective control: an outline of the ontology. Ecological Psychology. 4(3):173–187.
- Valenzuela J, Soriano C. Cognitive metaphor and empirical methods. Barcelona Language and Literature Studies. 14, www.publicacions.ub.es/revistes/bells14/PDF/metaphor_02.pdf
- Warren WH. Perceiving affordances: visual guidance of stair climbing. J Exp Psych: Human Perception and Performance. 10:683–703.
- Webb M. Affordances of ICT in science learning: implications for an integrated pedagogy. Int J Science Education. 2005;27(6):705–735.