To Push or To Pull the Door is the Question.

A look into the misconception of Affordances and “Signifiers” in Design.

Lately I wrote a blog on Design and Affordance talking about how affordances are the attributes of the physical object and how the designer can leverage these affordances to develop new interactions.

Don Norman was kind enough to point out a particular misconception about the philosophy of the affordance to me. When I requested in an email from him to comment on the philosophy of the article, he wrote —

“In the latest (2013) edition of Design of Everyday Things, I try to clarify the confusions. To help, I added the concept of “signifier”, the perceptible part of an affordance that signals to people possible actions. (not a hint — a signal — and it is not the affordance that does the signals, it is the signifier, which may or may not be a part of what is perceived of the affordance)….”

Affordance is an intrinsic property of the object which can allow and disallow for plethora of relationship. The “perceptible part” of the affordance from among the various relationship possible with the object is the “Signifier”. Affordance can be different for different actors. The “Signifier” is the actual signal which gives clues to the user to interact with the design. He added —

“An affordance is a real property of the world: It is the relationship between an object and a person (or animate any actor — machine or animate), allowing certain operations or prohibiting certain operations. Glass afford the ability of light to go through it, but prohibits a person from going through it. So the same physical object has different affordances to different actors.”

The key takeaway phrase for me was when he wrote that glass “…affords the ability” implying that “affordance” can be any property of the object. But what tells users to interact to with it is the “signifier” as it is the perceptible to the user. So if you design your next product, work with the signifiers not with the affordances.

Don Norman wrote more about this here.

A classical example here can be the push or pull of the door. You do not know if you push or pull the door when you encounter one. You end up doing both in hoping one would work. The door is flat and that “affords the ability” to push or pull the door, as a result we get confused. But if we put a flat plate, it “signifies” us to push the door. Similarly a collapsable telescopic bar would signal the user to push the door. My previous blog showcased how designers have developed solution for the same by implementing these ideas.

Another example that comes are the cloth hanging bars at the home. The hook in itself has the ability to pierce through skin (used in slaughter houses), provide as anchor. Similarly you can design the hook such that it hints for the user to put hang their garments on it. Here although affordances of the hook are many, but the signifier, is the way it is oriented inviting the to be put clothes on.

Ninja Juicers are a very good example of breaking some conventional ideology and putting across interaction mediums in the products which are counter intuitive to think about. For example the juicer model below, unlike conventional juicers, puts the motor on top of the container making it the lid. This is a brilliant design solution! The best part is the actuation of the motor. The grey colored plastic part which you see on the top of the Juicer is actually an ergonomically designed button. People have the tendency to put their hands on top of the lid to stabilize it. Ninja made that habit of the user into functionality. You have to keep the grey button pressed to make the motor move for you to bend your juice.

What is to note here is the way they have designed the product and carried forward the experience into a usability feature of the product. The big grey button out here may have multiple affordances. But the signifier is the design of the dome which makes it seem collapsable, that indicated me to press it for use. There is no bullshit here, no mode buttons, no speed button….just one — “Pulse”.

“I smiled the first time I used it. The experience was simply brilliant!”

I will keep exploring more one designs of everyday things and writing about it. I would be now diversifying into thought provoking topics. I am working on a few like how human beings are ‘carbon computers’ that are striving to create intelligent ‘silicon computer’. Talking more into Singularity and Robotic Consciousness which will either lead to rebirth of human civilization or birth of the next ‘x — computer’ life form.

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