“Affordance,” Archie said to me. “Have you heard of the term, affordance?”

Archie is in his thirties, inquisitive, and interested in everything. He’s a website designer and optimization specialist for Userlicious – and he loves his job.

Affordance is a term describing the function of an object. More precisely, affordance defines to what extent a thing does what it looks like it is supposed to do.”

We were in the Userlicious offices. Archie was bravely trying to explain to me the psychology behind online marketing. I have a background in psychology; but with the rush to go online a lot of psychology is being left behind. People are now doing everything through the medium of computers. For psychology, this changes everything.

“Let me give you an example,” Archie went on. “When you come to a door with a single vertical rail for a handle how would you open the door – push or pull?”

“Well, pull it. There’s nothing else you can do,” I answered.

Far Side: School for the Gifted

Far Side: School for the Gifted

“Exactly! A door with a knob to twist or a handle to turn implies there’s a catch that needs to be released before the door will open. And there’s no point having a catch if the door will simply push open; so seeing a door with a knob or handle implies the doorhandle must be twisted or turned and door itself pulled. That’s affordance – where things do what we expect them to do.”

I nodded; so far, so good. “What has any of this got to do with online marketing?”

“Website optimization is basically the same thing. People come to a website’s homepage, usually with something in mind. The whole purpose of the website is to help the browser do what they came there to do.”

I must have looked doubtful.

The problem with most business websites is that they make this whole process more difficult than it needs to be. And they do this by ignoring the affordance of the website.”

I leaned closer to the screen where Archie had brought up a random website.

“Here’s the homepage of a sports shoe retailer. Anyone coming to this site is looking to buy sports shoes. The website’s job is to sell this person sports shoes. Sounds easy right?”

I looked at him and smiled.

“Everything on this screen – according to the rule of affordance – should contribute towards selling me sports shoes.”

Archie looked at me. “Show me where on this screen it asks me whether I am looking for male or female sports shoes.”

I looked, but couldn’t find anything.

“Here,” In the top right corner of the screen a red ‘F’ and blue ‘M’ sat unobtrusively side-by-side. “Who, on God’s green earth, would figure that out?” He was becoming angry now. “This is an instance of poor affordance. Why not just have pictures of a sporty guy and girl each with a caption reading ‘Men’s shoes, Women’s Shoes?’ That’s affordance. Click on the guy, the website takes you to men’s shoes. Click on the girl and you go to the women’s sports shoe product pages.”

Userlicious Main Page

Userlicious Main Page

“And this is what Userlicious does?”

“We do a whole lot more than this. But yes, a lot of website optimization simply boils down to affordance – enabling the browser to get where they want to go and do what they want to do.”

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