Affordance in Paper Books, Digital Books and Audible Books

As indicated in Wikipedia, book, a physical object, is a stack of usually rectangular pages oriented with one edge tied, sewn, or otherwise fixed together and then bound to the flexible spine of a protective cover of heavier, relatively inflexible material. This kind of book is relatively modern compared with stone books, bone books created by our ancestors. All kinds of book can pass on information from generation to generation and this information is one of the reasons why we live the society today, with lots of rules, code, conventions, which in turn influence book’s content and functions.

Let’s first take a look at a traditional paper book, whose affordance is reading. However, reading is a general idea and in be more specific, with a book, we can search information, gain knowledge, explore ideas, etc. However, different people may have different perceived affordance for books, since “under the distributed cognition framework, affordances are distributed representations extended across external and internal representations”, as mentioned in Distributed Cognition, Representation, and Affordance. For example, from a blind man’s perspective, a paper book may be the same as a brick. In this case, the book doesn’t afford reading, but constructing.

The interface of a book is every page with information. Generally, we interact with books by turning the pages with hands. In this case, the book affords the action “turn”. In order to achieve this function, a book should have a reasonable size and weight, which are compatible to form factors to make sure that we can carry a book by hands and turn pages easily.

With the development of technology, now we have audible books and digital books. These new types of books have new affordance which set lots of challenges for designers because they not only have affordance inherited from paper books, but also develop their own affordance in a new interactive system. Take the most widely used digital book Kindle as an example. We can read it and carry it as a traditional book for that the design of Kindle tries to imitate a real book: the interface and the size. Different from the past that we can only buy books in a bookstore, we can shop in Kindle directly and the books will be downloaded in it within seconds. In this way, Kindle affords shopping and downloading.

In the case of audible book, from my perspective, depending on its function, the audible book is a book, because it imports us information and this information are structured in a more regular way in order to express the ideas or illustrate plots better. However, if we treat audible book from a different angle, it could be a radio program because of its format and the way it interacts with people. This kind of book exists in broadcast applications and affords pronouncing and “reading”.  In order to offer better user experience for us, for instance, the designers of Amazon audible book application Audible add an affordance to it: changing the speed of radio so that people with difficulty in listening can adjust the speed based on their preference.

Books keep evolving and their new affordances might appear. This outcome can be illustrated in a distributed cognitive system which consists of internal and external representations. The development of external representation drives us develop our internal representation and more affordance are required in order to bridge across them.

In sum, affordance will change along time and space with inner motivation of human and the characteristic of outside world.


Donald A. Norman, “Affordance, Conventions, and Design.” Interactions 6, no. 3 (May 1999): 38-43.

Jiajie Zhang and Vimla L. Patel. “Distributed Cognition, Representation, and Affordance.” Pragmatics & Cognition 14, no. 2 (July 2006): 333-341.

Martin Irvine, “Introduction to Affordances and Interfaces.”