What Is The Most Underrated Word In Web Design?

By Natasha Postolovski

An “affordance” is a perceived signal or clue that an object may be used to perform a particular action. A chair sits at around knee height and appears to provide support. It affords sitting. A toothbrush has a handle a little longer than the human palm. It affords gripping.

All of the objects that surround us have affordances: some are explicit (the “Push” sign above a door handle), and others are hidden (a chair could be used to break a window or used as a weapon). The term was first coined by psychologist James G. Gibson, then introduced to human-computer interaction by Donald Norman in his book The Psychology of Everyday Things, required reading for budding industrial and product designers everywhere.

Interface designers use affordances all the time. They have to. Unlike physical objects — which often have affordances based on their size, shape and weight — web and mobile interfaces must gain all of their affordance through design. For most designers, this is intuitive and instinctive, based on the thousands of design patterns we see every day. But have you ever thought about the qualities that make an object afford clicking, sliding, pulling or pushing?

By deeply understanding how affordance works, you’ll better master interface or product design. You’ll be able to use affordance as a tool to make your designs easier to use and encourage users to undertake the actions you want, like signing up for a product, generating content or connecting with another user. Better affordance can have a dramatic impact on conversion rates, registration rates and the user actions that matter most to the website, app or product you’re designing for. This is why “affordance” is the most underrated word in web design.

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