Affordance and Symmetry in User Interfaces

Paul Cairns, Harold Thimbleby

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Affordance is a widely used term in human-computer interaction (HCI) that, while familiar and attractive, does not have a clear operational definition. Using the mathematical concept of symmetry, this paper shows that it is possible to begin developing an operational definition for significant aspects of affordance by forming the theoretical concept of symmetry-affordance. The proposed definition restricts symmetry-affordance to particular contexts but in doing so makes it more useful, as it is clear how to exploit symmetry to aid design. The definition is in standard mathematics (in fact, group theory and model theory) and requires little additional structure. In examining symmetry-affordance, it becomes clear that some other HCI notions can be similarly interpreted by symmetry. The paper provides examples and design insights.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)650-661
Number of pages12
JournalComputer journal
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2008


  • affordance
  • consistency
  • mode
  • symmetry
  • HCI

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