Affordances are the activities a design makes possible. A basic definition of design is: any artificial outcome created to be used. The uses, themselves are the things a design affords. Some activities a design outcome affords are not always intended. For example, an iPhone can be used to make calls but it can also be used as a paperweight to hold down a stack of papers on a windy day.
Affordances have been the subject of much debate in design—whether they must be intended affordances or if they can simply be perceived (and in turn, relative to the perceiver’s concept of what the design can do). In the AoE4D framework, affordances are anything a design outcome can do. Well-designed outcomes feature signifiers that clearly denote activities a product, service, or system afford users.
Affordances can be “added” to existing design outcomes. Let’s say you own a house in Oxford, Ohio. The summers are nice in Oxford though there can be a lot of bugs. You would like to spend some time outside on a patio but your home doesn’t have one. Adding a patio means you add an affordance—your home now affords you the ability to sit outside and enjoy the summer days. The only downside is you didn’t have enough money to get a screened in patio, so the bugs are bad. Adding screens to the patio adds a new affordance—your patio now makes it possible for you to sit outside and also not be eaten by bugs. Now only if we had a ceiling fan… (if you’re a homeowner, you likely know how this “constant updates” cycle feels).
Design outcomes exist to be used. According to designer and UX Guru Don Norman, a successful design should make its affordances clear to users. A steering wheel in a car communicates its use pretty easily by its form. A telephone in the shape of a Pizza Inn guy—not so. A phone like this is cute but confusing to use because it does not communicate its phone-ness very clearly.
Let’s go back to 1994 and hear about affordances from Don:
Yeah, you saw that right. The video was originally from a CD-ROM.
When developing a design outcome, pay attention to the affordances it offers. Are these clearly communicated to the person using it? Are there unintended affordances the design presents? The clearer and simpler the affordances, the more likely a person will be to use the design effortlessly. And as Don said, don’t be surprised if people use your design in ways you didn’t expect.