Designing for the Senses: Prologue

Why the best digital experiences are the ones that feel the most analog

by Christian Cantrell

Prologue: Smaller/Lighter/Faster

Ever since I dissected my first optical mouse sixteen years ago and discovered a mysterious and seemingly arbitrary chunk of metal inside, I’ve been interested in how technology can be designed to appeal to the senses. Back in 1999, the idea that all you needed for fast and precise pointing was an LED, a camera chip, and a small circuit board was still very new, and although the technology worked well, it presented an unexpected problem: without all the components required to drive a mechanical mouse (a solid rubber ball, rollers, encoding disks, etc.), optical mice just didn’t have enough guts inside them to give them any real heft. Knowing that consumers often equate weight with quality, the solution companies like Microsoft and Logitech came up with was simple: add ballast.

Anyone who has upgraded any form of technology at least once in their lives can probably identify the kinds of trends we’ve come to expect from our devices: namely that they tend to get smaller, lighter, and faster. When devices like phones and TVs grow in screen size, they almost inevitably get significantly thinner. And with the steady elimination of moving parts, the miniaturization and integration of sensors and other kinds of chips, and advances in materials science, gadgets usually grow increasingly durable and reliable with every iteration. (Before you protest with tales of your old flip phone still working after falling off a building, getting flushed down the toilet, and going through the laundry at least once a week, consider that smartphones and “feature phones” are entirely different product categories, and that smartphones are following their own trajectory of durability and reliability.)

While technology’s seemingly unwavering progression toward smaller/lighter/faster is one of its most important and interesting defining characteristics, I find it even more interesting when some of those principles don’t hold true; when manufacturers intentionally go in the opposite direction of what’s possible, and what most of us consciously or unconsciously expect; when industrial designers make the deliberate decision to engineer tactility and physicality into devices — even when it adds expense, complexity, size, weight, and sometimes even inconvenience.

This article examines three distinct but interconnected ways technology can be designed to appeal more strongly to the senses. Part One (Moving Parts) tries to reconcile the fact that technological progress is often associated with the reduction or elimination of mechanical components, yet from the time we’re infants, most of us are fascinated with tangible controls like dials, knobs, and switches; Part Two (Natural Selection) explores the influence that natural materials still have on our technology, and the extent to which the physical world inspires virtual user experiences; and Part Three (Aural History) considers the new role that sound plays in our device interactions as we continue to replace the clamor of mechanization with the comparative tranquility of digitization.

Independently, each section explores how both hardware and software can be designed to appeal to specific senses rather than always being optimized for efficiency. But collectively, they help explain why some of the most interesting innovations will be those that defy the cold methodical laws of pure logic in favor of facilitating human interaction — and sometimes even genuine connection.

Part One: Moving Parts

Christian Cantrell is a science fiction author, freelance tech writer, and Engineering Manager on Adobe’s Experience Design Team. Follow him on Twitter.

Author of SCORPION and Director of Design Prototyping at Adobe.

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