‘Signifiers’ Vs. ‘Affordances’ in Good Product Design and User Experience
Imagine seeing a TV remote. A black, long, cuboidal one with some buttons on it. How will you hold it in your hand? Will the long edge be parallel to your fingers or perpendicular to it? Think about it. Does its shape, size, linearity help you perceive how you could hold it? That property of an object to help you realise its use based on its most basic aspects like form, shape, material, dimensions, is called affordance.
Now imagine the same TV remote, with buttons. Just buttons on them with no colour, or letters, or numbers on them. Will you be able to use it, even if you are able to hold it as it is meant to? What are the letters, colours, and numbers then? They are signifiers that help you understand the various functions. Those parts of an object that signify all that is possible in its use, are called signifiers.
Affordances show, quite visibly, the possibilities of action for a product. These affordances can be perceivable or can remain hidden depending on how well a product is designed. Signifiers add to the existing affordance of a product. They are instructional and visible like the red power sign on a remote control, or a door plate with push or pull written on it - they can be both tangible and intangible.
Sometimes an affordance can also act as their own signifier. These are known as perceived affordances like a squeeze top for liquid soap. It does not require a prompt to tell us to push the top to use it. Thus, the squeeze affordance is its own signifier and is often used in other products and mechanisms.
A tap or faucet’s affordance is that it can run water. But how often have we gotten confused as to which side to turn it for hot or cold? This is where signifiers become more important than affordances as they help communicate the design clearly. So a tap or faucet with red and blue dots or 'H' and 'C' written can signify which way to turn the tap for hot or cold water. In this case, the colour signifiers provide more visibility compared to the letters as they pop out, are easy to associate with and are universally recognised. If the tap or faucet does not have an option of hot or cold water, the perceived affordance of the tap becomes its signifier. As soon as another affordance is added (hot and cold water option), the need for a clear signifier arises.
Now think of a sensor tap which is deemed as the more hygienic and eco-friendlier brother of the traditional tap. How often have we seen or experienced difficulty in using it? The sensor tap still has the same affordance as a regular tap, but its visibility and usability are highly compromised. A newbie user almost always faces issues while using it for the first time. Even experienced users still struggle to decipher the right angle to activate the sensor. So the product here has no recognisable signifier for its affordance. Thus, one of them missing from the product can cause dysfunction, though one cannot exist without the other. More often than not, these sensor taps require a clear sign explaining that it is a motion sensor tap. This raises the question, “What takes precedence in a product’s design - its affordance or aesthetic choices?”
Designers often struggle to understand the concept of affordance and signifiers. They fall victim to the confusing nature of these two concepts, as Don Norman predicted. So to put it simply, affordance is the inherent function, the signifier is the clue or sign that helps carry out the intended use of that function. Affordances can be universal as they are based on human instinct, needs, wants or experiences. As discussed in our article about affordances, the Apple TV remote failed to reach a wider audience as its design deviation led to reduced understanding and discoverability of the product. Signifiers, on the other hand, should be recognisable by people from diverse cultural backgrounds. These signifiers can be based on colour, signage, etc. The colours red, yellow and green in a traffic signal and their implied meanings stop, caution, and go are recognised universally. But oftentimes, the recognisability of signifiers depends on social, cultural and contextual differences. An incident from the lives of Ramesh and Suresh (not the absent-minded brothers from the 5-star ad) comes to mind. Ramesh, the elder brother, completed his higher studies in the US and returned to India. Suresh remained in India. After Ramesh returned to India, the brothers went out for a late-night drive. Ramesh was behind the wheel. On nearing a junction, the traffic light started to turn yellow and Ramesh naturally started to slow down. Suresh, perplexed at his brother's behaviour, asked why he was slowing down when all he had to do was accelerate and cross the junction before the light turned red! For Ramesh, the yellow signal meant to stop and wait for it to go green. For Suresh, the yellow meant to speed up and cross before the signal turned red. This is how cultural context defines the perception of signifiers.
The keyboard, which has a universally common affordance, that is to tap, may have different signifiers based on the language. The signifiers (letters) for Hindi or a Hanja keyboard will not follow the QWERTY pattern of an English keyboard. Thus, a designer should keep in mind that a signifier may be universal, but its perceived action may differ based on social, cultural and contextual factors.
Signifiers allow to unify all the affordances of a product into a cohesive experience. So a design should focus on the signifiers to increase the perceivability of the product’s affordances. The onus here lies with the designer in creating a product that enables easy interaction with the end-user. This can be achieved by taking into account the social, cultural and contextual background of the end-users along with the other needs the product will cater to. Thus, communication is key to good product design. And the key to clear communication is a signifier that facilitates the understanding of affordance. Otherwise, you end up pulling a push door!
About the Writer
Malika Vaidya is an architect and writer. She is the Co-Founder of Architecture Pulse, a blog that explores the intersection of architecture and society. She is a graduate of the Rachna Sansad’s Academy of Architecture (AoA), Mumbai. She has interned at One Habitat Studio and The Origin.
About the Editor
Vishwa Balani is an English Literature graduate from St. Xavier's College, Ahmedabad and MS University, Baroda. She has been associated with CEPT University for two and a half years now where she has taught writing to students across various courses. Her tryst with language began very early in life and it has continued no matter which field she chooses to work in. She likes experimental writing but also believes in grammar, and the Oxford comma.
About the Illustrator