So I'm learning Norman's design priciples but I haven't quite understood affordance. I know the defenition now. If we take a square box, it affords to be sit on, stand on, it afford to be picked up and thrown etc. But my question is what is an example of a bad affordance?

Also what exactly is conceptual model? If I get into an elavator and don't know how to start it does it have a bad conceptual model?

  • To stay in Don Norman’s book: A door that has handles on both sides has bad affordance. To push, you don’t need a handle. So the handle suggests you’d need to pull. Having handles on both sides suggests they are operated the same, which they are not in most doors, only in swing doors.
    – Andy
    Commented Feb 10, 2023 at 12:07

5 Answers 5


Bad affordance is maybe not the right wording. Something is missing affordance for someone who doesn't recognise (how) it can be used. It can also have the wrong affordance when a person perceives the object in a way it can't be used. You only speak of affordance from the perspective of the person confronted with it and from what that person knows and understands in general.

A conceptual model is the representation of a system or object (or lets just say an application) in a way the user is supposed to understand it. Simply put, a conceptual model is how it is designed with a purpose. It is the counterpart of the mental model which represents how a person perceives the concept and thinks how it works. The two models should align well for a better user experience. This can either be done by bringing the conceptual model closer to the mental model (doing more user research and design work) or vice versa (providing a manual, give instructions etc.). This should also answer your question. You can possibly speak of a bad conceptual model when it doesn't align well with the mental model of the user.

To bring affordance and conceptual model together using your example: If the elevator was designed for you but you don't recognise it as an elevator (assuming you know what an elevator is), the affordance is missing for you (which could be different for someone else). Or you might think it is an elevator because it looks like one, but in fact it's just a big box with fake buttons inside, it has the wrong affordance for you. If you're standing in a real elevator (and you know it is an elevator) but you don't know how to operate it, it could be a mismatch in the design (conceptual model) of that elevator and your perception of how an elevator is supposed to work (mental model).


Affordance always works between the thing and the person interacting with the thing: A ladder offers affordance to be climbed to a user - but only if the user has limbs and the strength to pull their body up. A gas pedal has good affordance for most adults, but terrible affordance to 5-year-olds.

A conceptual model goes a bit further than what you describe - You are just describing the mental model for an elevator. A mental model would be our expectation for how to operate elevators, with each floor having its own button. It's not the only possible model[1], but it's the model we have when we enter an elevator.

The conceptual model takes a step back from the individual object and looks at the entire system in context. It's the overarching concept for the individual mental models and much more. The conceptual model is the plan, the mental model is the user's idea of what the plan was - at least as far as is relevant for their current task.

A bad conceptual model generally is just no conceptual model (for example, my front door and mailbox use the same style of key - but inserted in the opposite direction), or a model which just hasn't been user-tested.

[1] I bet someone already invented a system in which you type in your name on a touch screen and it brings you to your floor instead. Or a car manufacturer who made a clutch-like control for floor selection instead. Or something voice-activated.


Let's start with the definition:

Affordance describes all actions that are made physically possible by the properties of an object or an environment. In digital terms, a button on a page affords clicking, and text overflowing the page affords scrolling.

One clear example I always like to give is that of a button on a web page, because we use these on a daily basis so it's easy to relate to and understand.


In Modal #1 the button affords clicking much better than #2, because it visually looks like a clickable button (also relating to 'real' buttons, like radio knobs, elevator buttons, etc.)

Additionally, a button also has better affordance if it shows a "pointer" cursor upon hovering over the button, indicating that you can click here. If that wasn't the case, you would wonder as a user if this was a real working button. That's also why you should be careful with grey buttons, as they can easily look like 'disabled' buttons, that the user knows aren't clickable.


When something gives the impression of being interactive when it isn't, we say that the element has a bad affordance. This can lead to frustration on the part of the user, who may be expecting one thing and getting another.

The classic case that drives me crazy, and for no good reason at all, is when a brand's link colour is also used as a decorative element, like a text title, the background of a cell column header is in the same colour as links.


First, what is affordance? - Affordance is the relationship between the user and the object. It is how will the user use it based on what they see in the look/design of the object and the user's capability to use the object. A short but detailed explanation about it is on this page, https://ux.stackexchange.com/a/12517/164472.

Now, let's focus on your two questions.

1. What is an example of a bad affordance? - I'll just use your elevator example. enter image description here

So, there was a designer who designed an elevator around 2 meters high and maybe a 1-meter squared area for a building with 150 floors. 2 people entered the elevator, one tall guy around 1.90 meters tall and a short guy around 1.20 meters tall. The elevator button is situated at the top portion of the elevator which the short guy can't reach. Since the short guy can't reach the elevator and there are no signifiers for the short guy to help reach the elevator button, then it becomes a bad affordance for the short guy. In short, you will know if it is a bad affordance depending on the person who will use it. And false affordance is basically affordance that doesn't have any function. For example, an elevator will have false affordance if it doesn't have any buttons at all. Why? Because most (I'm not saying all) probably know how to use elevators so they already perceive that there is a button inside or outside that will make it move, but the moment they step inside the elevator and don't see any button or anything that will make it move, because that elevator is not meant to be used at all, then it is false affordance. You know that it should be lifting you up or down, but it is not. In short, the product/object gives you the impression of knowing how to use it, and what's its use, but is not functional at all.

2. Conceptual Models

A conceptual model is a representation of a system, composed of the concepts which are used to help describe the system. (retrieved from https://researchmethod.net/conceptual-framework/)

In other words, they are a bunch of concepts/ideas put into one model/representation of those concepts. How can you say an elevator that you don't know how to start because you need to do something having a bad conceptual model without looking into the elevator's concepts which are normally put into its manual? A conceptual model is not how you perceive the product/output of the concepts but is just a representation of different ideas and many concepts that were combined into one. For example, the elevator is the product of a conceptual model of concepts/ideas like ways of lifting people in a building, something that uses machines, can be operated by most people, can be installed in a building, operated by buttons, etc. It will be only a bad conceptual model if there are missing points/concepts/ideas in the model that was not explained properly for the product you and your team are planning to design. For example, you are planning to create an elevator, but you didn't say anything about how to operate it or maybe you put how you will operate it, but it is absurd and is not possible at all. Then, it is a bad conceptual model.

In order to create a good conceptual model, you have to answer:

  1. How will you use it?
  2. Who will use it?
  3. Where will it be used?
  4. What is it for?
  5. and last, The possibility of creating/doing it.

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