UX Series 03: Affordances and Signifiers

The Design of Everyday Things

It is far too simple to view products and our designs in a perfect vacuum of ideal use. Especially as engineers, we often lean toward a feature heavy experience, riddled with confusion, resulting in hoards of enraged users flooding customer support with phone calls. Befuddled, we lay our blame on the user, often exclaiming that they should have just read the manual. This attitude is ultimately a cop out. These circumstances are our failures as designers to make proper use of two concepts that Don Norman coins in his book, “The Design of Everyday Things”; affordances and signifiers.

Affordances and Relationships

I more often than not find that product design has a tendency to revolve around the definition of “features”, exclusively in the physical sense. “This graph updates in real time”, “This push notification fires for every friend request”, “The door swings sideways”. Ultimately, this is a flawed approach to product design because it excludes half of the overall equation, the user.

The user and the product always maintain a symbiotic relationship, which in the design community is referred to as affordance. Without one of these two halves existing, the other will always fail to achieve the desired goal. For example, a luggage company may build a suitcase that is designed to be the most durable on the market. Over the course of several months, stress testing has proven it to be nearly indestructible. Yet, this company forgot to factor in the physical strength of the consumers, resulting in most of the populace being unable to lift the heavy materials giving the suitcase strength. In this case, the affordance of portability between the user and the suitcase was stripped away by the very thing that was intended to make the product special.

Put short, the traits of our users and the traits of our products must be looked at as equally important in our decision making.

Signifiers and Communication

While affordances represent the possibilities of our products when placed in the hands of our users, signifiers are our indicators that those very affordances exist in the first place. Sadly, this is where a multitude of fantastic and helpful products meet their death, not because they are useless, but rather because their usefulness was never made apparent.

On a much smaller scale, think about the last time you tried to pull a door instead of pushing it. Why was that? What split second, subconscious, decision led to you picking the wrong direction to swing that door? It couldn’t have been the text on the door, otherwise the decision would have been obvious. Besides, with the ocean of text and signs that surround us everyday, we mostly tune that information out. Chances are, the physical design of the door seemed to imply that you should push it. On a pair of scissors the holes are just big enough to imply that we should be placing our fingers inside them. The length of rubber grip on a hammer may indicate how many hands we should grip it with. These are all examples of communication through the physical design of the product, and the core behind the idea of a signifier.

Proper design of these signifiers is paramount. If the user does not know of the existence of capability, it may as well not exist at all. Possibly millions of dollars have gone to waste for no other reason than lack of proper communication.

Moving Forward

Studying signifiers and affordances is all about maintaining a mindfulness of our user and how they will make use of our products in the real world. The two questions at the forefront of your mind should always be, “How can the user make this happen?” and “How will the user know they can make this happen”. If these questions can not be answered you have already failed.