Innovating with Affordances. How to Apply Form, Function & AFFORDANCE to Invite Action.

Innovating with Affordances. How to Apply Form, Function & AFFORDANCE to Invite Action.

Have you seen the new MacBook Pro? Upon powering up Apple’s flagship computer your eyes quickly get sucked into a lighted bar of digital buttons above the keyboard. Apple’s newest innovation, the Touch bar, looks cool and is functional, yet rarely gets used. Why?

Apple is king at combining form and function, but failed on affordances. The Touch Bar simply lacks affordances which invite action and interactibility.

Innovation: Function, Form, & Affordance

As we enter the “Age of Experience” we no longer can rely on form and function to meet consumer expectations. A visually appealing product with tons of functionality is insufficient to create experiences consumers desire. As brands innovate products that offer more features and functionality they are challenged with balancing form, function, and affordance. In the shift to digital and touch surfaces, with removing physical and moveable objects, it is critical to consider how affordances can invite interaction with products and devices.

We highlight what are affordances and how they invite action, interactability and will make or break innovations in the upcoming “Experience Era”.

What are Affordances???

Affordances are opportunities for action provided to people by the environment—by the substances, surfaces, objects, and other living creatures that surround people (Gibson, 1979; Reed, 1996). For example, a chair affords sitting, a handle affords grabbing, and a button affords pushing. Affordances are specified within a unique frame of reference for each individual performer, whether learner or expert, adult or child, because they are specific to an individual’s own action capabilities. Affordances are commonplace in architecture and design, but recently became center stage for cognitive scientists as the new tool to invite behavior.


1. Affordances are Opportunities for Action, NOT Causes of Behavior

  • Affordances are opportunities for action that exist in the environment. Affordances, being opportunities for action, do not cause behavior, but simply make it possible (Gibson, 1982).  For example, a chair affords sitting, but does not mean we choose to sit. However, the more “inviting a chair” the more likely we are to sit. This highlights, the importance of making affordances more inviting for behavior.

2. Affordances are Relationships with our Environments

  • The world is seen as a changing set of opportunities for action and interaction. As we experience the world we develop relationships between things in the world and our abilities (Chemero 2009). For example, if you look at the images below you may find path(s) that afford walking. These paths may or may not afford walking for you, but may for other people and species. An affordance is a relationship between an object in the world and the intentions, perceptions, and capabilities of a person (Weiser & Brown, 1995).

3. Affordances rely on an individuals capacity to utilize them.

  • A chair affords sitting behavior ONLY if we perceive the behavior of ‘sit-upon-able’. We may perceive a rock with a flat surface ‘sit-upon-able’ while in the woods or at a park. However, not everyone may perceive the rock as ‘sit-upon-able’, or the environment/context may not invite the behavior. Affordances are always predicated on a humans capacity to utilize them (Rietveld & Kiverstein, 2014).

…affordances an environment offers are dependent on the skills the people possesses.

How Affordances Invite Behavior?

Our everyday activities unfold in situations that offer a multiplicity of possibilities for action. As I am typing this article at Starbucks, the apple next to my MacBook invites eating, my cup of coffee invites drinking from it and lady sitting at the table next to me invites conversation. Affordances, when designed appropriately, are not mere opportunities to act, but serve more as behavioral invitations (Withagen et al., 2012). In other words, good affordances solicit action.

How to Apply Affordances to Innovation:

  • Don’t Sacrifice Affordance for Form. Aesthetics and emotional design are slowly taking over with smooth, less-interactive digital interfaces. Despite the allure of aesthetic value (form) and cost savings removing affordances can diminish the design. Written list of features is unlikely adequate to convey all the ways in which a consumer can physically interact with and use a product.
  • Make Affordances Obvious. An affordance can invite behavior if and only if a person perceives it. If affordances are not perceivable they do not have the power to invite action. Products should include affordances embodied in its design, shape, and other perceptual features (e.g., knobs, scroll wheels, push buttons, etc.).
  • Make Affordances Easy. Experts are more capable of exploiting affordances. For example, many Apple Watch users are unfamiliar with the features that require the force touch (pressing the watch face with more pressure). Designers need to overcome environmental and task-related constraints to functionally (re)organize opportunities to allow novices to experience optimal product functionality. For example, Apple Watch could provide haptic feedback with varying touch styles.
  • Unconscious Affordances: People unreflectively respond to demands of good affordances. Environmental and product affordances allow us to navigate through a store, talk on our phone and shop at the same time. Consider how consumer unreflectively buy and experience products. Designers should facilitate exploratory behaviours and interactions of individuals with product surfaces, objects, features and terrains, as well as other individuals.
  • Position Affordances to Stand Out. We are constantly immersed in an integrated field of relevant affordances, each of which can solicit activity. The affordances that stand out for as many individuals in as many situations are most likely to get acted upon. This requires positioning your products and their affordances to invite behavior relative to competing affordances (e.g., social affordances, object affordances, etc.). In short, position products affordances in contexts that solicit activity over other affordances.
  • Add Affordances to Boost Agency. With innovation trending toward removing and consolidating functions it is vital to recognize when physical objects matter. Affordances are intimately tied to agency and self-control which, if removed, can rob us of an experience. For example, can you imagine a car without a key or push start button? Or a lock that didn’t require any action? Certain actions, as irrelevant as they may seem and as easy as they are eliminate, can empower us and make us feel in control of our lives.


Affordances act as attractors drawing humans into action – inviting paritricpation, action and response.  Affordances are opportunities and possibilities that connect our activities within our environment.  When designing experiences we need to help consumers navigate the a complex and uncertain “landscape of affordances” by facilitating exploratory behaviors and product interactions with surfaces, objects, features and terrains, as well as other individuals.   In short, innovation and design is no longer simply functional, good looking products but also products intuitive and inviting to act and play with.


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  7. Reed, E. S. (1996). Encountering the world: Toward an ecological psychology. Oxford University Press.
  8. Rietveld, E., & Kiverstein, J. (2014). A rich landscape of affordances. Ecological Psychology.
  9. Withagen, R., Araújo, D., & de Poel, H. J. (2017). Inviting affordances and agency. New Ideas in Psychology.
  10. Withagen, R., de Poel, H. J., Araújo, D., & Pepping, G. J. (2012). Affordances can invite behavior: Reconsidering the relationship between affordances and agency. New Ideas in Psychology.
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