Delight Your Users: How To Enhance Your Product’s UX With Multi-Sensory Design

Multi-sensory design can lead to a memorable UX. Learn what it takes to develop products that appeal to users while still reinforcing your brand identity.

Svannah Nguyen
Svannah Nguyen

February 8 th 2024 | 8 min read

People experience the world through their senses. And the most memorable experiences are those that engage multiple senses simultaneously, evoking an emotional response as a result.

Users experience your products in a sensory fashion as well. The way your product looks, feels, sounds, tastes and smells all contribute to how people respond to it. And of course, that response makes all the difference in whether or not you achieve the market adoption you’re hoping for.

Why Be Intentional About Multi-Sensory Product Design?

Think about horror films. What you hear — an ominous creak or haunting music — contributes to how you perceive the action on the screen (and vice versa). Mute the sound, and suddenly the visuals aren’t nearly as scary. Listen to the soundtrack alone, and it’s just eery music. Neither in isolation are likely to have you on the edge of your seat. But put them together in exactly the right way, and you’ve got the makings of an oh-so-satisfying jump scare.

Creating the next Steven King adaptation may not fall within your purview. But whether you’re designing a consumer product, an industrial tool, a complex medical device, or something else, your product will automatically make a sensory impact. And nearly every detail of your design will communicate something to the user.

When done well, multi-sensory design can:

  • Create a pleasurable, immersive experience that differentiates your product from the competition
  • Bring your brand’s personality and identity to life through a comprehensive design language that works on several levels
  • Capture users’ attention with small details or “Easter eggs” that elicit surprise and delight

But even if you’re not designing with all the senses in mind, your users will still have a multi-sensory experience with your product. The question is: Will your product provide the holistic experience you intend? In other words, will you engage your users’ senses on purpose or by accident?

Think back to the horror film example. Ever laughed at effects that are genuinely supposed to be frightening? The filmmakers’ ability to make you jump depends on several factors working thoughtfully in tandem. When those elements don’t line up effectively — like if the music is too soft, too loud, or totally out of place  — the viewer still experiences it and may even have some kind of response. But it might not be the reaction the director is looking for.

In the same way, it’s essential for you as a design leader to think about the user experience you want to create. Then put the right elements in place to create the emotional response you’re after.

3 Primary Senses of Multi-Sensory Design

In general, smell — and especially taste — don’t factor into the user experience for the types of products you’re likely to develop. That’s why we’ll focus primarily on touch, sight, and sound.

Just remember: Although we’re taking a closer look at designing for each primary sense individually, the best user experiences are still multi-sensory. So as you read each section, keep thinking about how to combine your design choices to engage more than one sense at a time.

1. Touch

Products that feel good to interact with are a joy to use. And your tactile design choices play a critical yet sometimes overlooked role in product development. Elements like surface temperature, texture, weight, and other qualities also convey meaning about everything from a product’s perceived quality to its capabilities and efficacy.

Consider how the cold, smooth metal of a smartphone gives the impression of a sleek, high-end device, while the warmth and grip of soft-touch plastic on the phone’s case may communicate comfort or ruggedness. Imagine how it feels (and sounds!) when a component clicks into place properly or when you experience a haptic vibration on a digital device. These sensations provide satisfying feedback and help underscore that you accomplished what you intended.

On the flip side, when you don’t consider the power of touch, you miss opportunities to form positive connections with your users. And if you get it wrong, you risk alienating them altogether. For example:

  • Texture can draw users in or completely repel them. Take microfiber. Some people love it while others have a visceral, negative reaction.
  • Materials that are ultra-lightweight can also come across as flimsy and cheap. Their lack of heft may fail to inspire confidence in the product’s durability.
  • Interfaces that don’t provide any haptic feedback might feel confusing and unintuitive. And if it feels wrong, users may give up on using the product out of irritation or frustration.

So how can you know you’re making good design choices that appeal to your users’ sense of touch? Conduct user testing and ask specific questions about what your product feels like — and encourage users to describe how each tactile sensation makes them feel on an emotional level.

2. Sight

Visual details like color, typography, iconography, animations, and information hierarchy orient users, guide their actions, and communicate meaning. Good visuals communicated through consistent and compelling design language simplify the user experiences while simultaneously reinforcing brand identity.

Intuitive icons transcend language barriers. Clean layouts focus attention. Bold colors bring vibrance and grab attention whereas muted palettes might communicate professionalism or a sense of calm.

Conversely, clashing palettes can be grating and distracting. Dense interfaces are overwhelming and frustrating. Hard-to-decipher graphics confuse users and keep them from performing desired tasks. And a disjointed visual design can make a product seem outdated or hopelessly off-brand.

To harness the power of sight in your product design, consider:

  • The psychology of color and how different hues affect mood and emotions.
  • The cultural implications of your color choices. In the U.S. and many western cultures, green is a positive color and red is a negative one. The opposite may be true in other cultures.
  • How styling, layout, and information architecture work together to invite users in and provide an intuitive experience. (Again, there can be cultural differences here — e.g., some cultures read left to right; others read right to left).
  • The role of contrast in leading users on their journey (check out our work on this Essentium printer as a good example). High contrast can focus users’ attention where you want it to go, and low contrast can shift attention away.

Be mindful about visual feedback, too. Especially when combined with touch and sound, visual feedback — like a blinking status light that indicates a battery is low or a steady, ambient light that indicates the product is functioning as intended) — gives users confidence that they’re interacting with your product correctly and successfully.

3. Sound

Audio tends to play a supporting role in user experience. But when combined effectively with sight and touch, it becomes an integral part of conveying meaning. The right sounds reassure and satisfy users while harsh sounds can be unsettling, frustrating, and downright annoying.

Intentional sound effects like chimes, beeps, and alerts cue users, providing important feedback while simultaneously influencing emotions. The solid click of a closing latch conveys durability and inspires confidence, whereas a rattle or a squeak might alarm the user and communicate a lack of quality. Signature sounds (like the rumble of a Harley-Davidson hog) can even become a beloved part of a brand’s identity.

To design an effective and pleasurable auditory experience, be sure to consider:

  • The impact of silence on the user. In many cases, complete silence is uncomfortable for humans. The absence of sound can make users feel on edge or feel something is wrong — even if it’s not.
  • How audio works with — or apart from — other sensory cues. In a high-stress, fast-paced, or crowded environment (like an ER), a loud sound like an alarm can cut through the noise in ways a blinking light will not.
  • Affirmative vs. negative sounds. Some sounds indicate users are doing the right thing, whereas others indicate that something’s wrong. Again, culture plays a role in how users interpret sound, so don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach. User testing is key.

Finally, consider the environment in which your sound design will perform. Sound pollution and the “cocktail party effect” may interfere with the way your user experiences your product. Unintended sounds your product produces when materials rub together (like chalk on a chalkboard) can also affect users’ perceptions. Testing and validating your prototypes in a simulated or real environment is a smart way to mitigate these challenges.

Set Your Product Apart With Multi-Sensory Design

Your product’s market success hinges on your ability to create engaging, frictionless user experiences that set your brand apart from the competition. By integrating the use of touch, sight, and sound, you can mimic natural human interactions, convey personality, reinforce brand identity, and tap into users’ memories and emotions.

It’s easy to underestimate the impact of multi-sensory design on one hand and take it too far on the other. M3 can help you strike just the right balance — and we’re only a click away. So let’s talk.



Svannah Nguyen
About the Author

The goal of design is to raise the expectation of what design can be. -Paula Scher