How Does a Customer Know?

How Does a Customer Know?


When looking at a pencil, does a person need instructions to know how to use it? The one end has lead to mark paper with and the other has an eraser to remove those marks. Nobody needs to be taught how to use a pencil because before we ever pick one up, we have observed it being used and instantly understand its function. There are many objects that have these same affordances (see description below) such as chairs, cups, and, even a little bit more complex, keyboards. The user of these objects knows exactly what to do with them without instruction. In the case of the keyboard, some training could do to master it, but I’ve seen many people use them well enough at a base level.

“An ‘affordance’ is a perceived signal or clue that an object may be used to perform a particular action.”

Natasha Postolovski, Smashing Magazine

Think about any number of products in the marketplace and how well they are designed with affordance in mind. Is the product curved just so to fit the grip of a hand? Does it have a wide base and narrow top to indicate which side is up and which is down? Does the switch clearly indicate which position is off and which is on? These are essential for knowing how to use a product, but affordance is not limited to physical objects as this applies to digital mediums as well.

How many times have you gone to a website and had to pause to orient yourself? During this orientation, you are asking yourself what am I looking at?, what am I interested in? and where am I supposed to go next to get what I want? If this process takes more than a few seconds, you will likely click the back button and go elsewhere. There weren’t many affordances given in this situation to know how to use the website. There was probably too much clutter and competing attention grabbers.

Here are a couple of examples of products with and without affordances.

No Clear Affordance


Wallet Multi-Tool

This particular product has me confused right from the start. I don’t know what its primary function is, but after taking some time to look it over, I can see there are rulers on each side and there is a nice image of a bottle cap to let me know it has a bottle opener as well. I don’t know what the rest of the cut outs are for. This product is sold as a multi function money clip. I didn’t know it was a money clip until I read the description. Apparently there are nine uses for this product of which I can only make out three. My Take: People breeze past this when shopping because it’s not immediately clear what it is and how it will help them.

Simple and Clear Affordance


These I know exactly what to do with. The shape is in the form that would fit a foot and they look soft for stepping on. A nice added touch is the outline of where the toes, ball of the foot and heel are to be placed. My Take: This is so straightforward, people can instantly imagine placing these insoles into their shoes. The added outlines force the observers to picture their feet comfortably fitting.


With all of this in mind, what affordances are your products giving your customers? I suggest taking some time to go over your product and think about this. Once you have some ideas for improvement don’t stop there. Ask your customers for feedback or better yet, observe them using your products in their environment. You will get the truest feedback that way. Make any adjustments necessary so that it takes very little to understand how to use your product. Remove any extraneous functionality so as not to diminish the clarity of any affordances. Make calls to action clear in digital mediums so there is no mistake how to use the website or app.