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Why Multi-Sensory Web Design Can Improve the User Experience

Multi-sensory web design
April 14, 2022

Close your eyes, and imagine your favorite pie coming out of a hot oven.

You can almost smell it in the air and taste it on your lips. Maybe it brings up memories of Thanksgiving, with the crisp fall weather and sound of rustling leaves under your feet. Our five senses—sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell—are an integral part of experiencing the world around us and creating memories.

But what does this have to do with design and the user experience? We all want our websites to be memorable. How can design appeal to our senses to create an engaging and memorable user experience?

Sensory Memory

When we first experience something, our senses are stimulated, and a brief memory called “sensory” memory” can potentially become part of our short-term or long-term memory. We also know from research that learning is more effective when more than one sense is involved. At Astriata, our multidisciplinary approach to design integrates psychology for a better user experience. Let’s take a look at each of the five senses and how they work their way into our design thinking.

Sight (iconic memory)

For most visitors of your website, the visual impact of the design is the first aspect of your website that will engage them. Whether it’s a dynamic photo, a video, or an eye-catching typography, the way the page looks will elicit a reaction from the viewer, be it small or large. This visual stimuli may be remembered briefly and is referred to as “iconic memory.”

Ninety percent of information processed by the brain is visual, and it has been demonstrated that the ability to recall information is much higher when there is a visual involved, compared to an auditory only experience, such as a spoken lecture. Visuals are powerful for other reasons, too. When choosing an image, the visual itself has to be meaningful and support your message, but the color choice can be intentional. Warm colors such as reds, oranges, and yellows evoke a very different emotional reaction than cooler colors like blues and greens. Likewise, color can be symbolic and take on different meanings, with our experiences guiding our associations with imagery and color.

Color comparison on two logos

If your message is that your organization is approachable, friendly, and welcoming, then you may want to incorporate warm colors. Or does a warmer blue with small amounts of orange in the design strike the right balance of welcoming and professionalism? These are the sorts of issues and questions we consider as we work with clients to determine the right colors. But the sensory experience doesn’t have to end with sight. What happens, for example, when additional senses are stimulated while viewing an image? Does that make it more memorable? Can these sensory memories become a little more long lasting? Yes! You can enhance your site, and leave a lasting impression, by appealing to more senses.

The “Proustian Effect” explains how minor details such as color can become associated with memories that are more relevant and, therefore, more memorable. This doesn’t mean, of course, that your website needs to appeal to all five senses at once, causing users to experience sensory overload and tune out! What it does mean, however, is that additional senses can be engaged strategically to enhance the overall user experience.

Sound (echoic memory)

Adding sound can bring a whole new dimension to the online experience. Compare, for example, one of our social media posts without music to one with music.

Which is likely to be more memorable for you? Does one evoke more emotions and associations for you? Does the music sound happy? Music actually activates the left and right side of our brains and can trigger the release of the chemical dopamine, which is related to mood. And a change in your users’ mood can influence their perception and experience, making the effort worthwhile to shape the right tone through music and sound on your website.

Touch (haptic memory)

How does touch play a role in design? While we do touch our screens on smartphones, tablets, and laptops, these surfaces are all flat and smooth. However, if an image or graphic has a texture, does it elicit a different response through your association with the image?

Comparison of water texture vs. fur texture

Does one of these graphics feel more tangible and look like something you could grab onto?

Two illustrated slider interfaces compared

Design can evoke feelings of how something might feel, while conjuring up memories associated with that feeling—thus, adding to the depth of the user experience.

Taste (gustory memory) and Smell (olfactory memory)

Both taste and smell are similar to touch when it comes to designing the user experience. While we can’t experience those senses directly online, imagery can evoke memories of taste and smell. Remember that pie you envisioned earlier? There’s a reason why cook books and recipe websites invest in professional photography. Those photos can really make your mouth water! Depending on your website’s purpose and message, you may want to leverage associations with taste or smell.

Looking Forward

When considering how you can engage your audience, think beyond just the visuals to consider how you can create a more immersive experience for your users. With so much talk about the metaverse, we may not be too long from a user experience that really stimulates all of our senses!

Looking for more tips on creating a website that engages your users? Read “Five Lessons from Cognitive Science to Boost Usability.”

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