100 Things You Should Know About People: #53 — People See Cues About How To Use An Object

Door Handle that looks like you should pull, but it says Push
Photo from Istockphoto.com

You’ve probably had the experience of encountering a door handle that doesn’t work the way it should – for example, it has a handle that looks like you should pull, but in fact you need to push. In the “real” world, objects communicate to you about how you can, and should, interact with them. For example, by their size and shape, some door knobs invite you to grab and turn them; other door knobs invite you to grab and pull; the curved handle on a coffee mug tells you to curl a few fingers through it and lift it up. A pair of scissors invites you to put fingers through the circles and move your thumb up and down to open and close. Psychologists call these cues “affordances”.

When the cues go wrong — If an item is missing cues, or gives you incorrect cues, you get annoyed and frustrated. If the cues inherent in the object itself aren’t enough to convey its use, then we resort to putting labels on to fix the cue mismatch, as in the door handle above.

The equivalent of door handles online –– Have you ever thought about what makes people want to click on a button on a computer screen? If you use certain cues in the shadow of a button it looks like it can be pushed in, the way a button on an actual device, like a remote control, can be pushed.

Button not pushed in

If the shadows are reversed then the button looks like it is already pushed in.

Button not pushed in

Websites are losing affordance cues – Have you noticed that we are starting to lose affordance cues? When graphical user interfaces first came out, almost all the buttons had these shading cues. They were built into the button widgets that came with the Windows or Mac styles. When everything moved to the web there weren’t required interface widgets. Everyone could create their own buttons. Many buttons don’t have the cues anymore.

Button at website with no shading

We’re even losing the hyperlink cues — Most people have figured out the affordance cue on websites that blue, underlined text means that the text is hyperlinked, and if you click on it you will go to a different page. But lately many hyperlinks are more subtle, with the only cue that they are clickable showing up when/if you hover, as in the example below from the New York Times Reader application. In the app, you don’t get the hyperlink until you hover.

No blue hyperlinks

Even fewer cues on an iPad — And if you are reading on your iPad all of these cues are missing. You can’t hover on an iPad with your finger. By the time you’ve touched the screen with your finger you’ve clicked on the link. There is no hover on an iPad.

What do you think? Are we going to lose all affordance cues?

And if you like to read:

  1. James J. Gibson (1979), The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception.
  2. Donald Norman (1988), The Design of Everyday Things,
100 Things You Should Know About People: #54 -- The Average Reading Level In the USA Is Grade 8
100 Things You Should Know About People: #52: People Create Mental Models

7 Replies to “100 Things You Should Know About People: #53 — People See Cues About How To Use An Object”

  1. I like your thoughts on this. I am currently reading that interesting book by Donald Norman and was thinking about this, too.

    I can imagine designers stripping the cues of hyperlinks for aesthetic reasons, thus preventing an overkill of distracting lines or colors in a text. Should everything that looks interesting on a webpage be clickable (and have a cue)?

    But I don’t think affordance cues will disappear. Usability and conversion optimization seem to become more and more important and this should reaffirm the need for online affordance cues.

  2. I think one large consideration this article doesn’t address is how people evolve and become more sophisticated as they respond to established patterns. I don’t disagree with the importance of indicating various actions, but I don’t think the example of blue hyperlink that is underlined is necessarily applicable as we enter the 3rd decade of the internet. A door without a push or pull sign is still instantly recognized as a door and its functionality and usage is implied. While a user’s cognitive load is increased when we add options (either push or pull) the friction involved will lessen over time.

    The iPad example is also an extremely complex topic that can’t be summarized as you have done. As objects and technology do a better job of mimicking the real world it forces a paradigm shift. Written correspondence doesn’t have a hover state, and we don’t need instructions on how to turn a page. When the user believes in the world that is being presented, certain actions don’t need to be described. There is debate over whether apple has done a perfect job in this capacity, but as this becomes the accepted pattern there is no doubt the need for instruction and clues becomes less of a primary design consideration.

    — Ben

    1. Ben

      It is true that as we evolve, we take it as read and may not need cues because we learn from other website that some text may be a clickable event not just text.

      This is particularly true of western cultures, eg people living in cities undertand perspectives and which objects are closer/further from lines, whereas people brought up in the bush and not living in the cities do not get the same cues and learn perspectives of lines in the same way.

      After all it is interesting to watch a baby used to an iPad, trying to flick a magazine, but equally well watch the frustration of users trying to “click” on text on a phone or iPad and wondering what to do.

      Susan is not the only person who views the iPad going backward when removing cues and affordance such as underlined text, 3d action buttons etc, you will find Jacob and Norman also with a similiar perspective.

      Cues and affordance minimise cognitive load and make things quicker and easier to use.

      In many causes, eg emergencies, products need to take this low cognitive/default behaviour into account ESP for first time users.

      It is the reason that fire doors open with a push not a pull. A person seeking to escape from a fire does not have the luxury of learning to use a fire door.

  3. I’m still learning from you, but I’m making my way to the top as well. I definitely enjoy reading all that is posted on your website.Keep the tips coming. I enjoyed it! %WEBSITE%

  4. This is a very interesting article. I recently got an MA in Social Psychology and now seek to marry Social Psych with Webdesign for my PhD position, it’s totally up my avenue and having come across your blog just fortified my decision of going into this direction :)
    I agree with Ben, I think as we grow more and more tech savvy the cues as we have gotten to know them are not needed anymore. I think though that some affordance cues still remain albeit in a more subtle form. I say this because in the example you gave (regarding the absence of a blue hyperlink), I still see cues: the fact that there are headings on the right side of the webpage, appearing in a list like form is a (newer?) cue that the content is clickable. Nowadays, everything is linked on the web and thus a free floating headline begs to be clicked and since it usually redirects to some content when clicked we’ve gotten conditioned to click such headlines even in the absence of clearly marked hyperlinks.

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