The Significance of Signifiers

Signifiers play a key role in User Interface and Experience Design. So what are they exactly? How are they used? To explain signifiers we need to look at another fun little gem. Affordances.

Affordances were conceived by Dr. J. J. Gibson in the late 70's to describe the options available to a being in it’s environment. It’s a little vague, I know. Lets say you are standing in the forest. There exists variety of possibilities around you provided by your environment. Some of these options are good and some are bad. These possibilities, good and bad, are affordances and they are key to your survival. For instance you can use that big rock over there as a seat or you can use it to bludgeon some poor creature to death. Those are it’s affordances. The term really came into the public eye when Don Norman wrote about them in his book “The Design of Everyday Things”. Unfortunately many people picked up the term and began misusing it.

Signifiers identity the intended use of an object. That use could be one of the many natural affordances of the object but the signifier zeros in a specific affordance or set of affordances. This is where designers have an enormous amount of control and responsibility. The iPod click wheel is a great example. We were previously used the wheel on the iPod only being sensitive to touch by sliding your finger around it to scroll. They then made the wheel clickable with 4 active points. To signify this interaction they labeled the top, right, bottom and left quarters with the menu choices. They also made sure the wheel made a clicking noise when pressed. In the absence of more traditional button indicators this click was essential feedback for the user to know they were supposed to press it and that it registered their press.

In my experience working with engineers and designers I have found that slick interfaces often lack signifiers because “The user will figure it out.” In some cases this is very true. There is an element of discoverability in a new device or service that can be satisfying for a user to uncover. But in many cases this is purely a choice of aesthetic over function. Generally we are selling our users products, not puzzles. UX designers must be aware of design goals and be able to work with engineers and designers to achieve a pleasing looking product that is also clear and easy to use. I feel lucky to have worked as a designer and engineer in the past because it enables me to more easily meet them half way. In the future teams from both sides of the fence will need to have at least a cursory understanding of the limits and requirements of each others professions to ensure a harmonious partnership.

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