Visceral Appeal in UX – Part 1: The Mystery

Visceral Appeal in UX – Part 1: The Mystery

By Dorothy Shamonsky, Ph.D.

“Visceral appeal” is an expression that is thrown around freely in the UX community but it seems to be well understood on some level, yet not truly understood at all. Everyone seems to grasp the general notion that a user experience (UX) can immediately elicit a positive, gut feeling of “I like this!” The user doesn’t need to analyze why they are responding positively. They simply find something about their UX likeable; it could be the colors, layout, shapes, animation effects, performance, etc. Really, anything that delights the senses can be the trigger.

Visceral responses come from the primitive, preverbal part of your brain that is stimulated by raw sensory input. Depending on the nature of the sensory input, one can have anything from an intense attraction to a fearful flight response. Diane Ackerman, in A Natural History of the Senses, refers to the limbic system, where visceral responses originate as, “…a mysterious, ancient, and intensely emotional section of our brain in which we feel, lust and invent.” (1)

In UX design, visceral appeal is good and desirable, because it has a better chance of being liked by users. This may keep them coming back to use an app again and again, or at the very least, it opens up the door to the user spending more time with an app to see if it suits their needs. Overall, visceral appeal may bolster product success but that’s where the understanding of visceral appeal begins to wane.

Many questions remain unanswered. Do visceral responses only come from the instinctual part of the brain or are they also tied in with memories and ideas? Are the things that illicit visceral attraction universal to all humans, or are they specific to types of humans (gender or age specific). Is visceral appeal in the UX realm similar or different than it is with other products and artifacts? Is it possible to test for visceral response in humans? Are the visceral responses to physical reality different from the visceral responses to GUIs and virtual reality?

In his book, Emotional Design, Don Norman lends some insight into the nature of visceral response: “Although the visceral level is the simplest most primitive part of the brain, it is sensitive to a very wide range of conditions. These are genetically determined, with the conditions evolving slowly over the time course of evolution. They all share one property, however: the condition can be recognized simply by sensory information.” (2)

He goes on to explain how humans are “genetically programmed” to respond positively to objects or conditions that offer nourishment, safety and warmth. These might include things like sweet tastes, light, soothing sounds, saturated colors, smiling faces and symmetrical shapes. Conversely, humans are programmed to respond negatively to signals of danger such as looming objects, discordant and loud sounds, rotting smells and misshapen bodies.

One could argue that trained designers who are humans and therefore “genetically programmed” with the appropriate responses to sensory input, are well equipped to create visceral appeal without investigating brain science or reading aesthetic philosophy. I am at least half in agreement with that argument; I can theorize answers to all the above-mentioned questions based on my own training, experience and gut feelings about what is attractive. The philosopher, Santayana wrote, “To feel beauty is a better thing than to understand how we come to feel it.” (3) As a designer, I know that if I can experience beauty, I can create it in the work that I do. I am also extremely curious to know as much as I can about UX design and want to investigate more into the theory and science of human emotional response systems. Over my next several blog posts, look for further investigation into the philosophy and brain science of visceral appeal.



Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses, (New York: Vintage Books, 1991) 11.

George Santayana, The Sense of Beauty, Being the outline of Aesthetic Theory, (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1955) 8.

Donald A. Norman, Emotional Design, (New York: Basic Books, 2004) 29-30.