Web Design for All the Senses

Web Design for All the Senses

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In: Columns > Innovating the Web Experience

By Dirk Knemeyer

Published on January 12, 2005

My friend, Nathan Shedroff, provides many foundations and definitions for the discipline of experience design in his book experience design 1:

“Most technological experiences—including digital and, especially, online experiences—have paled in comparison to real-world experiences and have been relatively unsuccessful as a result. What these solutions require is for developers to understand what makes good experiences first, and then to translate these principles, as well as possible, into the desired media without the technology dictating the form of the experience.”

It is amusing to me that the experience design community often self-identifies as being Web or digitally focused, but as Nathan points out, design for the Web is drastically behind other media in creating a truly experiential interaction.

Of course, much of that has to do with the nature of digital media. The technology and interface opportunities do not lend themselves to obvious and easy implementation of multi-sensorial experiences. However, that is ultimately a challenge and not a true barrier. As Nathan alludes, the real reason the Web and other digital networks and interactions are such a hollow, flat experience is we are not being innovative and creative enough. Happily, this is something that we can easily take control of and change.

Experience design requires that we design for all five senses. It is safe to say that over 99% of what is happening on the Web relates only to our sense of sight. On the surface, this might seem a logical and obvious state of affairs. In reality, it is a reflection of some mental laziness and of not thinking outside the computer screen. Let’s look at each of the other four senses and explore how we can integrate design for those senses into our Web experiences:


Our sense of hearing is the only other primary sense regularly stimulated within the Web experience. This happens in three basic ways:

Business need

Hearing is essential to some businesses and products, and they have innovated on the Web to create opportunities for people to hear what they have to offer. Certainly, the meteoric rise of the original Napster, and more recent success of Apple’s iTunes and related products and peripherals, is a testament to auditory content on the Web.

Without the ability to listen on the Web in the first place, we would not have reached the point where people will not just buy downloadable music on the Web but even purchase it without having heard it first. It was the free and easy availability of real music and online content that enabled this industry to spark, sizzle, and finally burn. The iPod is the hottest consumer electronics product because of the evolution from early music availability into major pent-up market need. Markets find a way.

The music industry is one example of the business model and auditory nature of the product driving the integration of stimulating this human sense onto the Web.

Multimedia integration

ESPN, once the leading television sports channel, has become a Disney-owned multimedia superpower with significant content and reach across many cable channels, an international radio network, a major /files/includes/print.css publication, and one of the larger and more substantial news-related Web sites in the world. ESPN.com represents the fulcrum for integrating and leveraging the corporation’s entire media empire.

Over the last two years ESPN has quietly moved into making the Web a true extension of its traditional media base—television—by staying at the front edge of online video technology. One component of that is sound. Because of their business goals and the need to maximize the effectiveness of other media, espn.com has a deep integration of auditory opportunities on their site, ranging from radio feeds to television segment re-broadcasts to clips from sporting events and more.

Design sensibility

Some Web experiences prominently integrate sound for the purpose of defining the sensibility and aesthetic of the site owner, for the enjoyment of those interacting with the site, or both.

One of my favorite examples of this in practice is a little Web design company in the Washington, D.C., area: michelango.com. I first stumbled upon this site some five years ago, and it still represents to me what the best use of sound on the Web is all about: subtle, effective, integrated into the visual design and integrated into the vibe, identity, and brand of the company itself.

Another common way to integrate sound is through content sampling or sharing. Digital Web Magazine’s own D. Keith Robinson does this on his site Asterisk with Song of the Week. Keith has integrated a self-contained media player onto his site and regularly writes a review of different songs he’s listening to, making those songs available on the site. Particularly for a blog or other form of personal publishing, expression, and communication, this sort of content sharing and sensorial integration is natural, and weaves a tighter relationship between the site owner and the visitors they share the most in common with. As with michelangelo.com, Keith’s success is the product of strong and logical execution as much as simply making auditory content available.

I am not saying that integrating sound into your Web design is easy—on the contrary. One of the reasons we see so few examples of sound design on the Web is the large volume of spectacular failures we were saturated with during the Internet boom. Sites forced auditory content at us that was poorly conceived and executed, typically by people delighted with the powerful tools at their disposal, but without the design sensibility or capability to use them properly.

As the Web has become more refined, the reverse has become true. Sound is not being properly integrated to create better sensorial experiences. By thinking about the reasons sound has been aggressively integrated into Web experiences, and examining these and other examples of it being done successfully, we can rather easily bring the stimulation of this important sense into our own strategy and design.


There is so much the Web design industry can learn from the movie industry. Ever heard of Smell-O-Vision? Understanding the power of multi-sensorial experiences, the movie industry experimented—more than 40 years ago now—with integrating olfactory experiences into movie viewing. Unfortunately, the technology was not equal to the idea, and the experience was poor.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and a new and improved Smell-O-Vision. While the technology is still in the experimental stage—far from mainstream—it reflects an understanding of the untapped business potential available through an integration of the sense of smell. For some companies, this is a no-brainer. The fragrance industry would greatly benefit from this technology. Flowers and food are other products that lend themselves to aggressively exploring and making the most of this technology. But good experiences go much farther than business need. There are plenty of pleasant, mainstream, inoffensive smells that I would enjoy “sharing” with visitors to my own site—just very slightly, very lightly, the most brief and subtle of gentle whiffs, to evoke a smile or thoughtful tilt of the head.

This updated Smell-O-Vision holds great promise because of the deep understanding we now have of olfactory science. Organizations like the Sense of Smell Institute will be of increasing interest to business and, by extension, to Web and experience design.

Smells can be broken down into just a handful of component parts, and appropriate replication of smell through a digital device is a very real possibility. We’ll see what happens with Smell-O-Vision, but it is only a matter of time now before some technology enables us to easily indulge in integrating olfactory stimulation into our digital experiences.

Even now, there are other ways we can integrate the sense of smell into our design and development. Smell is particularly important in design, since it’s the sense most directly tied into our memory. Let’s look at the last two senses to better understand how we can integrate smell into our design today.


How can we design for touch on the Web? It seems impossible. But that barrier was imposed on us by old paradigms, and is no longer right or valid.

First, we need to remember that every single person interacting with our Web experiences is stimulating their sense of touch. They are typing on a keyboard, or moving and clicking a mouse, or using a stylus, or pushing buttons or… something. Touch already is a part of the experience, but it is one that is controlled by hardware manufacturers and not something that we consider within our provenance or sphere of control. But it can be within our control if we want it to be.

Second, we need to get our heads (not to mention our asses) out from behind our digital interfaces. Designing an experience is holistic. It is not limited to pictures or sounds or pixels or hardware. We need to assert ourselves into the environments of the people interacting with our Web experiences. The interaction does not need to end with the Web or interface, even if it is centered there.

This exercise is a little bit easier for me, because before I moved over to the creative and design side of the business I was a marketing strategist. One of my responsibilities was to innovate how we could best communicate to customers and the market. What media channels could we take advantage of? How could we best leverage those channels to have the biggest possible impact? Designers and developers should be thinking the same way.

Specific applications will depend on the company, product, or site goal we each have to deal with, but in any case it’s oh, so logical. For companies that rely on touch and feel for sales—the fashion industry for instance—it is essential to get materials in the hands of customers.

A common tactic is to drive people to the Web through traditional marketing, such as running a television commercial that also attempts to get people onto the site. But this can just as easily run in reverse. Instead of the traditional marketing channel being the driver, the Web can become the driver.

Direct mail is a great example. Why not send people a small piece of fabric that can attach to their mouse, monitor, or keyboard, specifically to influence their Web experience? This way, not only can they interact with and touch the product while on your site, they can do so when using other sites. And this area is ripe to be taken advantage of!

Sit back from your monitor a little bit. Stop clicking. Look around. What in your environment, while you are interacting with your computer, is designed to stimulate your sense of touch? I’m guessing that very few of us have anything like that available. Yet, if available, every single time I gently rubbed a piece of trademark Burberry or branded cashmere, the company or product that introduced that tactile interaction into my overall Web experience would benefit from it. I might be on the CNN site being bombarded by expensive ads from big companies, but I’ll be gently rubbing that little piece of fabric and warmly appreciating the company that was thoughtful enough to put it there, rather than the advertisers.

It is just basic experience design—think beyond the specific media and create a better overall experience.


This is the toughest of the five senses to design for. In approach, it is rather similar to touch or smell. Yet, unlike other senses, taste is not a continuous part of our everyday life. We access taste only at specific times—at meals or other ritualistic personal behaviors such as coffee drinking—and it is almost always a matter of our own control.

Sights and sounds and smell and even touches are more often than not imposed upon us from the outside. They are not invited in; we are presented with them and left to interpret, categorize, and respond to them in the way we best see fit. As such, the challenge of designing for taste requires subtle modifications to basic behavior, as well as basic ideation and implementation.

Chewing gum and mints are two examples of products that began to break the limited paradigm of taste. People will use these products all day long, stimulating their sense of taste in an ongoing way. In fact, this entire product category is ultimately ripe for buy-outs from and subordination by major brands that have nothing to do with the core products (Harley-Davidson gum, anyone?) but that is beyond the bounds of this article and publication.

People love to eat, and they enjoy having their sense of taste stimulated. I give a lot of presentations and seminars, and most of the time I make sure to hand out to the entire audience some sort of a small taste treat during the course of my talk. The effect of doing this is remarkable. People smile. Their body language changes. Their energy level changes. By providing just these little, inexpensive treats, it creates an entirely different moment and interaction. That is powerful!

Since very few non-food-related companies currently have any sort of a taste associated with them, the best way to design for taste is to design for the end user. What sort of things do people like? When and why do they like them? What connections can we draw between our company/products/selves and those particular tastes or items? How can we get those to the people?

These aren’t your typical development questions, and certainly not appropriate for all situations, but this is the way we need to be thinking. We are designing experiences, not just Web sites. Taste is an important part of experience. We need to think about that, even if we are only supposed to be thinking about boxes and buttons and pixels.

Ours to design

It certainly isn’t rocket science. It is just a matter of opening our minds up a little bit and taking a new look at our definitions and boundaries. After that, the only limitations are imposed by our creativity.

Technological and financial barriers are factors, not impediments. And the benefits of creating better experiences are virtually limitless. Just think to yourself: What are the things I am most passionate about or moved by? Most often, the answers lie in areas not currently being addressed within design solutions, yet well within our individual grasp to provide. The world is ours to design, and there is no reason to wait.

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Dirk Knemeyer is a Founding Principal of Involution Studios LLC, a digital innovation firm located in Silicon Valley and Boston. Dirk is responsible for managing the business and for providing design strategy, brand innovation, and training services to organizations around the world. Dirk is on the Board of Directors for the International Institute for Information Design (IIID) headquartered in Vienna, Austria, as well as the Board of Directors for the AIGA Center for Brand Experience, based in New York City. He is also a member of the Executive Council of the User Experience Network (UXnet). He has published more than /files/includes/10.css0 articles—many on the topic of design strategy—and regularly gives presentations all around the world.