A keyword from our Glossary of terms
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The shape of this door handle 'invites' users to turn it

When living beings attribute usefulness to an object or situation they often do so after discovering this via a mixture of curiosity and common sense, backed up by experimentation and direct experience. Many designers use the term affordances to describe the specific ways in which the object in question allow this to work. Here, it is important to note that the 'affordance' cannot really be seen as intrinsic to either the object or the user - it is a combination of the two things. The notion of affordances has generated great interest in the design community, having developed from JJ. Gibson's work on perception, (Gibson, 1977) then becoming more relevant to design with Donald Norman's popular publications (Norman, 1988), which offers an explanation for the idea of 'user-friendly' approaches in HCI (human-computer interface) design.

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Coffee cup with handle is designed to fit the hand

Ad hoc affordances

While the idea of 'affordances' almost invariably refers to actions or tasks that are physically 'possible', some may be latent but unintended. For example, the placing of a broom diagonally across a doorway evolved as an ad hoc way to warn people not to enter the room, perhaps because the floor is wet. Here, it is extremely unlikely that the broom inventor envisaged such a use. In most designs, however, designers work with existing cultural conventions and codes to make affordances easily readable. For example, a cup handle affords the holding of hot liquids without having to grip the body of the cup directly.

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Object with many affordances (e.g. toy and bird home)

Affordances in living systems

Before Gibson, however, it is sometimes forgotten that, at the end of the 19th century, Jakob Von Uexküll (c.f. Ingold, 2011) developed a biological theory for understanding their phenomenological environment in terms of their cognitive and phenomenological boundaries (i.e. similar to a type of affordance). Affordance also has important implications for evolution (Withagen & van Wermeskerken, 2010), given the need for organisms to seek new ways to adapt to changing circumstances. In this regard, Peter Spring describes what he calls 'adaptive assembly' as a "new approach to closing the gap between dispersed information and a task’s participants" (Spring, 2008). Similarly, in seeking an understanding of how living creatures manage unexpected, or confusing, encounters, Gregory Bateson (1977) has suggested that abductive reasoning is an important aspect of their strategies.

Cultural Probes

Bill Gaver is developing this phenomenon in conducting digital product design research. For example, his team characteristically produce an undefined device or product that demonstrates the capabilities of a new electronic gadget, then place it in the home of a member of the public. After some time (e.g. 6 months) they return to find out how this person and her/his family regard it, and what uses they may have found for it. They call these devices cultural probes (Gaver, Dunne & Pacenti, 1999).


  • Gaver, W, Dunne, A., & Pacenti, E,. (1999), Design: Cultural probes, Interactions, Vol 6, Issue 1, Jan/Feb 1999
  • Gibson, James J., (1977), The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. New Jersey, USA
  • Hoffmeyer, J. (Ed.). (2008). A legacy for living systems: Gregory Bateson as precursor to biosemiotics (Vol. 2). Springer Science & Business Media.
  • Ingold, T., (2011), Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description, Routledge, Oxford, UK
  • Interaction Design Foundation - https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/book/the-glossary-of-human-computer-interaction/affordances
  • Norman, D. A., (1988), The Design of Everyday Things. Doubleday, New York, 1988
  • Spring, P., (2008), Adaptive Assembly, Download
  • Withagen, R., & van Wermeskerken, M. (2010). The Role of Affordances in the Evolutionary Process Reconsidered A Niche Construction Perspective. Theory & Psychology, 20(4), 489-510.
  • Wood, J., (2012), Why User-Centred Design is Not Enough, Core 77, September 24th, 2012 (download this article).

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