Affordances

Posted on by Guy Cookson

When designing a product the temptation is always to add more features.

More features, the thinking goes, will make the product more attractive to consumers.

But in reality this is often not the case. And many of the world’s most successful product designers have an innate understanding of this fact.

When the engineers at Sony first developed the Walkman in the late 1970s, which at the time was a revolutionary product, the prototype product included the ability to record sound.

Sony’s founder, Akio Morita, surprised his engineers by instructing them to remove this functionality.

He did this not because of the added cost (which would have been trivial) but because Morita believed it would confuse customers about the purpose of this new device.

“In the same way that McDonald’s omitted cutlery from its restaurants to make it obvious how you were supposed to eat its hamburgers, by removing the recording function from Walkmans, Sony produced a product that had a lower range of functionality, but a far greater potential to change behaviour,” explains advertising executive and author Rory Sutherland.

“By reducing the possible applications of the device to a single use, it clarified what the device was for.”

In his brilliant new book, Alchemy, Sutherland goes on to explain that the technical term for this is an ‘affordance’.

Affordances provide clues as to how something might be used. As the design author Don Norman notes, “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.”

Anyone that has experienced the joy of unboxing and starting to use a device without ever referring to a manual, or installing and interacting with an app without seeking help, will know how invaluable this can be.

“It is always possible to add functionality to something,” says Sutherland. “But while this makes the new thing more versatile, it also reduces the clarity of its affordance, making it less pleasurable to use and quite possibly more difficult to justify buying.”


A version of this article was published as part of a weekly column by Guy Cookson on marketing, design, trends and strategy in the Lancaster Guardian, Blackpool Gazette, Lancashire Post and other titles. See our brand, web design and marketing recent projects.

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