Affordance August 2019 • 5 minutes

Affordance is what the environment offers the individual. I just read that on Wikipedia. My definition comes from our experience at Y Combinator. The design partner Kevin Hale gave a talk about affordance. I’d attempt to reproduce it here but it had some nuance to it that I don’t want to lose. The gist was that people will interact differently with an environment depending on the affordance that exists in it. You can influence how people interact with something as a result.

The concept in design typically applies to the expected outcomes and happy paths. You want the user to take a happy path, ie. the path that results in their expected outcome. Because design is hard and users sometimes lack context, achieving this is hard to do. There are many unhappy paths that they could end up taking. You can use affordance to guide them into the happy path: make the desired outcomes easy and the undesirable ones hard. Let’s apply this.

The first example involves how affordance impacts saving money. To login to your bank account (what’s my 2-factor authentication code again?), remember where transferring money happens, decide on an amount of money to transfer from checking to savings, do the transfer (what that’s a big / small number, how stressful) and then confirm it worked is a large amount of affordance. That’s why forced savings plans exist: you just automate everything I described. It ends up being easier to just save money, instead of repeat the cycle for withdrawal to checking. And people end up saving more money as a result, because doing so is easier than not.

The next example involves hamburger menus. At a certain point, Facebook implemented a menu style in their app called hamburger menus. You’ve almost certainly used it before without realizing but may not know the term for it. Picture the three horizontal white lines you see at the top left (or right) of almost every app and responsive mobile website. That is a hamburger menu. It turns out there wasn’t a good convention for “there’s a menu here” yet. Once Facebook adopted the hamburger menu, everyone else did too. Facebook has particularly motivated users, who often learn about these UI concepts by using Facebook before they appear everywhere else. Something similar happened with material design and Google: people use Google services so often that material design makes people feel high trust and comfort. So everyone else started using it for things too in order to benefit from (and reinforce) that effect.

The last example is the archetypal one: light switches. Generally speaking, up means on and down means off. Small children learn this by observation and everyone pretty much perceives it as a rule. If you were to reverse that concept around, and make up off and down on, people’s head would explode. You can make your light switches very easy to use, simply by using the same pattern that every other light switch someone has encountered before.

Which introduces some interesting concepts. In the savings example, it’s clear that the design of the process is more important than our will power: all the studies say that people who automate savings and manually pull money from back to checking do better than the reverse. So design can make or break the success of a process, system or object. In the hamburger menu example, new concepts (like menus on a mobile phone) can be a massively stressful experience for the user of those phones. Once a universal body with influence (in practice) decides on an approach, users start to strongly prefer that approach in all contexts. Finally, in the light switch example, it’s clear that the network effect for the up and down switch is so strong we forgo potentially better options (ie. a dial for brightness) in favor of the simplicity and universal appeal of the up and down switch. Design basically trumps reason and learning.

It can be interesting, then, to consider what affordance you can introduce into your own life to make it better. A basic example might be to keep your healthiest food on the counter. People, in their righteous laziness, will typically just eat what’s in front of them. The wise person doesn’t necessarily get rid of unhealthy food, you simply have to make it harder to access. The same applies to many things: social media, alcohol, public transit and so on. People will take the path of least resistance: we have an obligation to design our lives and those things so that the best path (most sustainable, enjoyable or otherwise) is also the easier one to take.

There’s a dark side to affordance too. What if someone else wants you to take a bad path? It can be, unfortunately, as simple as reducing all the affordance. Smoking has a lot of fairly annoying overhead involves. Over time, people’s tolerance for it went down to the point that a lot of people just stopped. Vaping seems to remove many of those affordances (ie. no fires inside, no constant trips to the convenience store, much less smelly). And by virtue of removing all those affordances, has become massively successful. So bad things can win simply by virtue of removing the affordance around them. To win that war, we should be aware of affordance.

Discovering this concept was really exciting to me in a lot of ways. For the business, it is a holistic and qualitative way to help understand how to make customers more successful. Understand all the jobs they need to do, and remove all the affordance that you can over time.

For me personally, it really rewired my brain to think in terms of design. I don’t need the willpower to save, I need to remove the affordances from the saving process, such that I can do it on autopilot. I can remove affordance from the things I want to do (like write) to the extent that I can do it more frequently. And I can add affordance to other things (like checking work email by removing it from my phone) to reduce the impact it has. You can never remove all the affordances (neuralink?) but you can move towards a well designed.

Our responsibility is to design the system, not necessarily to act within it. The impact of thinking this way surprised me, and might surprise you too.