Hi there, Matt here.
Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things is an essential piece of the product design canon. It’s remarkably relevant, even as smart phones, AI, and the mobile internet become “everyday things” — things Norman couldn’t have imagined when he first published the book in 1988.
But as I read TDoET, I felt like Norman breezed past (or buried) the concept of affordances. For something that underlines everything we design, it doesn’t get much air by way of explanation or exploration.
So I wrote this essay. I hope it’s useful, even if you’re not spending all day applying affordances to interface design.
But first, a song. It’s a low-fi/high-fi swirling warm enveloping paen to … anything at all? Straw Dogs, by Orchid Mantis
There’s a secret code embedded in every app, website, and interface you use. Underneath your fingers is a hidden world traveled by the interface designers, caught up in a war between the complexities of technology and the breakneck evolution of user needs. These designers speak cryptically in neologisms (squircle, sharrow, neumorphism) and food-themed shibboleths (hamburger menu or meatball menu? Candy bar or toast?).
Their code is made of things called affordances. Those fluent in the language of affordances possess an intuitive and powerful understanding of how design works.
So let’s take a trip into the depths of interface design and shine a light on affordances. We’ll study them, explore how they work, and see how they define our digital tools. Bringing affordances out of the shadows can lead to clearer conversations about design, no matter if you’re a veteran designer or a casual user.