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A property in which the physical characteristics of an object or environment influence its function.

The term affordance was created by psychologist James J. Gibson, his best-known definition is taken from his seminal 1979 book, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception:

The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. The verb to afford is found in the dictionary, the noun affordance is not. I have made it up. I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment.

Objects and environments are better suited for some functions than others. Round wheels are better suited than square wheels for rolling; therefore, round wheels are said to better afford rolling. Stairs are better suited than fences for climbing; therefore, stairs are said to better afford climbing. This is not to say that square wheels cannot be rolled or fences climbed, rather that the physical characteristics of round wheels and stairs better afford the functions of rolling and climbing.

According to Norman (1988), an affordance is the design aspect of an object which suggest how the object should be used; a visual clue to its function and use. Norman writes:

…the term affordance refers to the perceived and actual properties of the thing, primarily those fundamental properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used. […] Affordances provide strong clues to the operations of things. Plates are for pushing. Knobs are for turning. Slots are for inserting things into. Balls are for throwing or bouncing. When affordances are taken advantage of, the user knows what to do just by looking: no picture, label, or instruction needed.”

References

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