What are ‘Signifiers’ in Good Product Design and User Experience?
Imagine walking by a restaurant with a long queue. “To wait or not to wait, that is the question…” Our first assumption will be that the restaurant is famous. But the long queue might also be because of inefficient service. Our assumption might not be 100 per cent accurate, but the queue gives us a clue that helps us make a decision. Here, the queue is a social signifier, which indicates that if we want to enter, we need to wait. The way we as users perceive the queue leading to a decision, is the signified.
The word ‘signifier’ finds its origin in semiotics, where it is used along with the word ‘signified.’ Ferdinand de Saussure introduced these terms in order to explain what the study of signs entails: the ‘signified’ pertains to the ‘plane of content,’ while the signifier is the ‘plane of expression.’
In the last article, we explored what affordance means. Looking back at the example of the mouse and the keyboard, we established that clicking and tapping are the affordances of the mouse and keyboard, respectively. Affordance as a principle is the property or feature of an object that gives a clue or prompts the user on how a product can be used. But how do we use the tools and to what end?
This is where ‘signifiers’ come in. The mouse cursor that aids clicking and the letters on the keyboard that prompt typing are the signifiers. Thus, a signifier communicates clearly to make recognition of possible affordances or anti-affordances easy. It is essentially a signal or symbol that validates an affordance. It signifies what a product can or cannot do. It can either be blatantly obvious or very subtle. These signifiers can be in the form of textual information, sound, texture, lighting, colour, symbols, or proximity of objects to one another. They can also appear in the form of social situations.
We never know the exact speed of a fan. But we know that the regulator rotated in a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction increases or decreases the fan’s speed. The regulator here is an affordance. The numbers indicated on the regulator which communicate the speed of the fan in the form of levels are the signifiers. Here, a higher number equals the higher speed of a fan. An arrow on the regulator dial is an added signifier that communicates which level it is on. While affordances concretely determine what actions are possible (or not possible), signifiers help in communicating what those actions will lead to. Affordances alone can deliver a successful experience sometimes. But most of the time, signifiers are needed to create an easier interaction with users.
Signifiers show us the extent to which we can use a product. This is done by providing a sign or symbol that reflects what the product stands for, what is currently happening with it, and what alternate actions are possible. It’s similar to the concept of learning while doing.
Take the example of a fuel gauge. It indicates the amount of fuel in the tank which is its affordance. The letters F and E signify ‘full’ and ‘empty.’ A pointer shows the relative amount of fuel left in the tank. Additionally, as the fuel in the tank decreases, an indicator light signifying the low amount of fuel gets turned on. The indicator light acts as a call-to-action signifier that prompts immediate action from the user. As Jacques Lacan has said here, “Meaning is produced not only by the relationship between the signifier and the signified but also, crucially, by the position of the signifiers in relation to other signifiers.” Hence, the letters, the pointer, and the indicator light are all signifiers; each of these signifiers play their part at different points in time for a different function but also work in relation to each other. A signifier in this sense can be a sensory output by the machine like light, sound and smell. Or it can be a mechanical function that communicates an appropriate response or result on our part that in turn prompts the next action.
Signifiers in design are used based on function and logic. And thus, they are used deliberately to prompt a response and convey a result. But the use of signifiers is not just functional or logical. They can be both cultural and social, and thus are an important part of the field of semiotics. Natural signifiers around us are unintentional, like a well-trodden path in a forest will signify the road most travelled. A signifier is thus a device for communication that can be deliberate or incidental. Signifiers intended to provide clues for a function sometimes end up communicating something intangible and vice-versa. And sometimes signifiers can be misleading, like a queue in front of a restaurant!
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.
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