More Than Meets the Eye: Engaging Website Visitors with a Sensory-Rich Experience

We experience the world through our five senses – sight, sound, touch, smell and taste. The more of our senses that an experience engages, the richer and more memorable that experience is likely to be. Visit a nice restaurant, and you’ll see how that establishment works deliberately to engage all five of your senses. The food will, of course, entice your senses of taste and smell, but its presentation on the plate will also play to your sense of sight – as will the lighting and décor. Consider as well the music being played and the feeling of the fabrics and textures on your chair and table: what kind of sensory response do these things elicit? All of these elements work together in synchronicity to define your experience at this restaurant. When it comes to website design, we have traditionally focused our attention on only one of the senses – sight. While sound comes into play on occasion, it is the sense of sight that we tend to think about first and foremost, as websites have long been considered a visual medium, similar to printed content like books, magazine or newspapers. However, one of the most powerful aspects of the Web is the fact that we can, indeed, engage more of the senses than we can with a paper document. With the benefit of today’s technologies and looking ahead to what the future may hold, we see that we can begin creating experiences that stimulate multiple senses to immerse visitors more deeply in our sites, thereby creating more lasting, memorable impressions. Let’s take a look at how we can use our websites to create sensory-rich experiences and how recent advancements in technology are unleashing new possibilities for how we can engage with our users through the Web.


Let’s start with the primary sense that has long been associated with websites – sight. Yes, the look of a website is important, and its design is meant to captivate a visitor’s sense of sight. But exactly how we use the tools of visual design leaves a lot of room for creative experimentation and variety. Many sites today employ movement and animation in their designs, whether it’s a rotating carousel of images on the home page, buttons that change color or size when a user hovers over them or embedded video. Amazon’s recently announced Fire phone takes the way that a screen can engage our sense of sight to the next level with a feature called “Dynamic Perspective.” This feature allows users to interface with the content on the screen by tilting the phone in different directions. A simple move of the wrist allows access to shortcuts, opens navigation menus or scrolls the page. This technology has the potential to immerse users more deeply into digital environments with a unique perspective that allows them to look under, behind or around elements on the screen. Currently, these perspective features are being utilized as part of the phone’s native operating system and by a few select apps, but how long before other devices introduce similar features and web designs begin creating pages that can take advantage of different perspectives and dimensions? If movement and animation can attract a user’s attention and engage them through their sense of sight, just think about what this dynamic perspective may be able to bring us in the future.


Today, the most common way that websites engage a visitor’s sense of sound is through video content. The ability to involve multiple senses in a single experience is a powerful thing, and video content is a perfect example of this principal in practice. By combining visual and audio, video content can accomplish important objectives on a website, whether that’s explaining a complex concept or showcasing product features, While videos are a great example of how sound can be used effectively to enhance the user’s experience, there’s also a dark side to sound on the Web, which, if used improperly, can undermine your site’s success. Just as in the restaurant example we cited previously, background music or sound on a website can help to create atmosphere and mood, but if that sound is too loud, inappropriate or obnoxious, the tone it sets will be a very negative one. Soundtracks on websites, a feature that was popular years ago when many companies wanted immersive Flash-based sites, often backfire. Visitors who may be listening to music as they surf the Web, or those who do not want a website to suddenly begin blaring music at them (perhaps because they are at work or in some other environment where being surprised by audio will be an unwelcome experience) are likely to be annoyed if they get audio content that they did not want or need. Unlike the audio associated with a video that helps engage the user, audio added to create “atmosphere” is rarely used effectively, and you should be very cautious if you decide to go this route. For all audio content on your site, whether it’s part of a video or some kind of music or background sounds, be sure to allow visitors to initiate that audio on their own, and do not surprise them with it. The shock of their sense of sound being engaged unexpectedly is what you want to avoid!


Touchscreens have been available for many years now, but until the release of the iPod and iPhone, they were not widely used in consumer devices. Today, touchscreens are everywhere. Not only do we all carry around touch-driven smartphones and tablets, but touchscreens are now readily available for laptops and even desktop computers, too. With the rise in the adoption of touchscreens comes the ability to engage our visitors’ sense of touch, allowing them to interface with our site in a more physical way as opposed to only through mouse clicks. This ability to touch our sites allows us to connect with our audience in a literal sense. While most sites or applications currently focus on gestures and movements to scroll pages or access features and content, there are also organizations working on tactile touchscreens that can make interfacing with screens a completely different experience. Looking again at the new Amazon Fire phone and their Dynamic Perspective feature, I can only imagine how powerful an experience we could create by combining that technology with actual tactile sensations on the screen as people interface with our content. Talk about being pulled into a digital environment!


You wouldn’t think that the sense of smell could possibly come into play on a website, but emerging technologies hint that this may soon become reality. Harvard scientists recently transferred a scent from Paris to New York using an iPhone app (the smell they sent was “champagne and passion fruit macaroon” – yum!). They did this using a platform called the oPhone, a new technology from a company that is “working to bring olfactory wonder to mobile messaging.” Yes, they can actually send smells. The future is here. While this particular technology, which includes more than 3,000 scents, requires the use of specific oPhone hardware, the fact that innovators are actively advancing the possibilities for integrating the sense of smell into the digital world prompts us to think about the kind of fully immersive sensory experiences that might lie just over the horizon. For example, what if a restaurant could transmit the scents of their food as you peruse their website’s menu page. Or what if you were shopping for scented candles online, and you could actually smell each product just as if you were standing in a brick-and-mortar retail store? What if you could take a video tour of a bakery, see the products as they’re being made, hear about how they’re created and smell the delicious aromas of cakes and cookies baking in the oven – engaging sight, sound and smell all at once. Sound unbelievable? It may not be as far off as you think.


What about the sense of taste? Will we one day be able to transmit tastes through our websites? It sounds crazy, but then again, the ability to project a smell online seems equally implausible until you hear the story of the oPhone. Who knows, maybe one day soon we will not only be able to send the aroma of a freshly baked cookie but also allow customers to sample a taste of that cookie as well. Again, it sounds incredible, but almost all technological advancements seem like wishful thinking until someone figures out how to make it happen.

Looking ahead

Who knows what the future holds, but I for one am excited to see how we will be able to expand our ability to engage our website visitors’ senses to create more powerful – and certainly more memorable – user experiences.