How your keen observation of the senses could help you design better products and services

The phrase “Multi-sensorial design” might sound like a big word, but it merely means designing for the five senses. It is the “awareness of psychological effects elicited by interactions with products, the varying degrees to which the senses are stimulated, the meanings and values users attach to any product or service, and the emotions that are elicited” (Hekkert and Shifferstein, 2008).

Dear reader, we are no longer designing products and services; we have evolved into creating experiences. Well, you already knew that. We have moved from a sphere of rationality to a realm of desire.

In the last decades, we have seen a rise in experiential design and guerrilla marketing, especially among top brands. In recent times, we have witnessed saturated markets with the rise of e-commerce. A lot of companies are striving to get the attention of prospective users. And the question remains, how can you get people excited about your brand? Traditional advertising no longer works as effectively as it used to.

Martin Lindstrom, in his book Brand Sense, discussed how brands create emotional associations by appealing to the senses. Have you ever entered a Joann’s store to be welcomed by the fresh pumpkin spice suspended in the atmosphere? Joann’s has created a sensorial association for its consumers. It is referred to as sensory branding. It is what huge corporations like Starbucks use to build customer loyalty. People will pay more if they are strongly connected to your brand. So the big question is: How are your customers interacting with your brand?

There is a beauty in the various interactions we have with everyday objects. The aesthetics of interactive experiences are not limited to what you see; it discovered in the multiple sensorial experiences you have with a particular thing. The aesthetics of interaction resides in the growl of a Harley Davidson engine, the sleekness of a race car, the flipping pages of your favorite novel, or the tune of an iPhone call. All these add to the aesthetics of interaction and create memorable experiences through different senses.


Designing with the five senses in mind

When I think of an entity that possesses the complete multi-sensorial experience, I think of food. Restaurants get the opportunity to build multi-sensory pleasant customer experiences with food. If you’ve ever gone to a fancy restaurant, you would remember how pleasant (or not so pleasant) your experience was — the enticing colors as your eyes bounced from one end of the dishes to the other, the mesmerizing aroma that sweeps you off your feet, the varying textures that boost your appetite, the irresistible taste your palettes leap for and the soft, ambient sound of classy music.

Jinshop Lee’s Ted Talk sheds light on designing for the five senses. His speech starts with a conflict he had with his classmate in college who had created a clock that left everyone in awe during the class crit. He always wondered why his classmate’s clock was more clever than his. This unresolved contemplation led to his discovery of multi-sensorial design.

Jinshop Lee is not the only one thinking about this concept. At the Istanbul Medipol University, Yasemin Soylu and some of his colleagues created a course around multi-sensory product experience and how multi-sensory design could optimally communicate ideas. It was here that we truly start to see an introduction to visual and sound dairies. He urged his students to make a note of individual sounds and the emotions that came with the tunes. It would be remarkably fascinating to dissect certain parts of the songs/sounds and document the feelings they elicit. To fully understand a concept, it is best to break it down into little bits.

The pillars of sensory design

Let’s look at how certain stimulations on our senses can affect our interactions with certain products and services.



This is the most seductive of all the senses. We are driven by the things we see. Our understanding of color, orientation, motion texture, or depth could drastically affect our decision making. It’s easy to spot the effort placed into what the consumer sees in a Nike Store. The colors, orientations, and arrangements of the shoes spark excitement. It becomes really easy to connect with the Nike brand because of what you see.



This is very effective in conveying messages. In this data sonification named Two Trains, by Brian Foo, you can literally hear the sound of income inequality as he rides on the New York Subway’s 2 train through Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx. In this case, sound passes across a compelling message. Coffee shops have even discovered a way of creating co-working spaces for their customers. Coffee shops usually have ambient jazz or classical music playing as their customers work on their laptops. They have adopted brand-appropriate music, whereas the music they play is not distracting or evasive, and customers can work and simultaneously interact with their space.



The feel of a product can also be a significant sales driver. There’s just something about coming in contact with Under Armor outfits or shoes. It’s almost like they make you feel invincible. The materials and fabrics speak of enhanced performance. There’s something about touching the product that makes you feel like you already own it.



This is the sense thoroughly attached to the memory. Marcel Proust, a famous novelist, brought up this notion. It’s easy to walk into a store and recognize the brand by the perceived scent. Hobby Lobby and Joann’s are good examples of stores that use this. It is said that the average human can remember more than 10,000 scents and associate them with memories. The retail, hospitality, and food and beverage industries have used these to their advantage. Even coffee shops like Starbucks invite customers in with the fresh brew of roasted coffee. It’s hard to resist buying something as you walk into any Starbucks.



It is pretty evident that food and drink bring communities together. They spark conversations and bring people from different cultures and backgrounds. In some offices or stores, guests are offered a cup of coffee and finger foods. Sometimes, you can even spot a vending machine or a pantry in some apartment complexes. These are placed to increase customer satisfaction.

It’s interesting to see how the addition of one sensory element could completely change your sensorial experience.

Is multi-sensorial design limited to physical spaces?

In the digital space, vision and sound are predominantly used to attract new audiences. Who knows, we might see the influence of other senses on the web in the nearest future. Wouldn’t it be really cool if websites could appeal to your sense of touch via haptic feedback or perhaps your virtual sense of taste or smell?

Maya Angelou has this famous quote, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Let me paraphrase that: “People will forget your brand message, people will forget your brand values, but people will never forget how your brand made them feel.”

Be more aware of the sensorial patterns around you. Make a sound, visual, tactile, olfactory, or gustatory diary. What are the different things around you that create pleasant memories or experiences? What are avenues where your business can design better experiences? This is just the first step to designing for the five senses.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are no longer designing products and services; we are creating experiences.”

“People will forget your brand message, people will forget your brand values, but people will never forget how your brand made them feel.”


Works cited:
Yasemin Soylu, et al. (2017) The Anatomy of a Multi-Sensory Design Course: Happy Sound Object, The Design Journal.
Sener, Bahar, and Pedgley, Owain. (2015) Designing for Multisensorial Interactive Product Experiences, The Design Society.
Rupini and Nandagopal. (2015) A Study on the Influence of the Senses and the Effectiveness of Sensory Branding. Journal of Psychiatry.

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