Why Signifiers Are So Important In UX

Thank You Don Norman

Signifiers are illustrations, labels or marks that define how and where actions are to be performed. A signifier tells us what needs to be done within a situation. The lights at the traffic signal, the audio cue of a boiling kettle are examples of signifiers. Signifiers are essentially used to clarify affordances.

Affordances form the relationship between an object and an agent, whether human, animal or robot. They signal what actions are possible when we interact with an object. For example, a bed affords a user a place to sleep, a pencil affords us the ability to write and a chair offers us a place to sit.

These concepts, among others, form the principles of good design. Cognitive scientist, Don Norman, wrote the go-to book for anyone and everyone concerned with delivering the best possible user experiences. In light of a few recent events, I found myself reflecting on his amazing contribution.

Wait! Why Are These Important Again?

To put these concepts into perspective, consider an elevator. The elevator affords the user the ability to travel between floors. The button, also an affordance, allows the user to select a floor. But, it is the label on that button that ‘signifies’ the designated floor. Without it, you’ll have to clear your calendar for the rest of the day.

Elevator Panel


Affordances and signifiers are highly interdependent particularly when  affordances are open to interpretation. This is especially true in novel situations where the user is unaware of the affordance. I once walked into an elevator with no floor selection panels.

I thought things had got so sophisticated that I began calling out the floor, thinking the elevator was voice controlled. I was wrong. The selection panel resided externally. At the expense of looking a little foolish and visiting several unintended floors, I learned something new that day.


Even in relatively simple situations, signifiers are important. A door by itself may afford entry or exit. But, without the correct signifier to signal whether it needs to be pushed, pulled, slid or is automated, an ordinary door can get complicated.



Affordances and signifiers may be obvious, bold or even subtle. Subtlety only works when there is sufficient learning, knowledge or experience acquired with an object.

In the absence of signifiers, people use mental models to make sense of affordances. These models are learned through experience, repetition and knowledge acquired in the world.

Affordances are also influenced by cultural factors. For instance, the light switch in some countries is turned off when flipped downwards while the reverse is true for others. Therefore, having the right signifiers helps make things a lot easier for everyone.


Touchscreen interfaces are also prime examples where control and operation are based firmly on affordances and signifiers. For example, how would you turn a mobile phone on/off without the necessary cues?



How would you navigate or interact with content on your touchscreen device if you didn’t know what actions were possible or where and how those actions are to be executed?

Interactive Gestures


Fortunately, universally accepted features, motions and processes are being implemented to help retain some amount of standardization and user control. This also conditions us to execute the same actions when we encounter similar but newer situations. If the modus-operandi changes, our learned actions become useless.

So, you can see why signifiers become crucial to user experience. It’s also worth noting that affordances can take on the role of signifiers too, they usually come to be understood through learned experiences.

For instance, we hammer a nail on the head, we turn a screw clockwise to tighten and anti-clockwise to loosen. These actions have become implicit now. We don’t always have indicators to guide what we now consider ‘elementary’.

But, in most cases, signifiers are vital to guide action. If you ever feel heroic, try typing out an email to your boss with your eyes closed or on a keyboard with no signifiers. I promise you, you’ll have a neat story to share with your grandkids one day.


So, why am I talking about these concepts? Well, I recently encountered a situation where these concepts, particularly signifiers, could have helped save me a lot of time and unnecessary effort.

A lot of what I’ve discussed so far assumes that affordances and signifiers are located at the same point of interaction. The big question is “What happens when they are not?”

The big question is “What happens when they are not?”

Consider DIY (Do-It-Yourself) Products By IKEA

Last weekend, I found myself tasked with having to put together a few IKEA wardrobes and desks at home. For the record, I am no stranger to such projects.

As an example of a break-down in signifiers consider the below case in point. In the image below, those little tags around the legs of the table were thin loosely-held paper rings that came off with the plastic wrapping. They weren’t supposed to.

Because they were key signifiers that guided precise placement of those legs, the project had to be reworked, taking twice as long to complete. While the table was indeed lovely, the experience was far from it.


Assembly isn’t supposed to be rocket science. After all, the whole premise of DIY is based on economics, ease, simplicity, fun and learning, amongst other things.

Creating a frustrating experience for the user can defeat the purpose. It deters customers from returning. It even leads to learned helplessness.

Such cases where affordances and signifiers are separated necessitate deeper attention as they need to be managed correctly to avoid  misinterpretations and errors.

As objects become more complex or when novel ideas are commissioned, affordance interpretations will grow. But, without appropriate signifiers to guide action, user experience will suffer.

Designers and product developers must deploy signifiers with care in order to mitigate the risks of misinterpretation in affordances or signifiers.

They must collaborate more with users to create universal languages. They must walk the path of the user, understand their conceptual models, their prior experience and the knowledge they have accumulated to build accurate signifier-affordance relationships.

So, maybe the next time you feel helpless with a product, don’t blame yourself, you now have good reason to blame the product too.

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