Visceral Appeal in UX – Part 4: The Design

Visceral Appeal in UX – Part 4: The Design

By Dorothy Shamonsky, Ph.D.

To understand how to create visceral appeal in a user experience (UX) it helps to compare and contrast other forms of media that preceded the digital medium.  For example, in graphic design, color, composition and font choice can trigger our emotions. Industrial design is dependent on the quality of physical materials and their tactile appeal. In addition, the mechanisms - the responsive action of buttons or controls - matter greatly in how much we are attracted to use a device. In cinema and photography, camera angle, film speed and resolution set the stage, but the actual content captured, whether a serene landscape or an explosive car chase, tend to be what moves our feelings and makes us love it or hate it. The importance of sound in cinema is huge as it often makes images more real and/or stimulates feelings associated with the images. 3-D computer graphics and animation draw upon our fascination with creating imaginary, living things or even full-fledged fictional worlds. With computer animation we can condense qualities that we love about physical reality and exaggerate them or make them hyper-real.

The digital medium, which we use to create the display-associated piece of user experiences, can simulate aspects of all the above-mentioned media. Almost any of the techniques designers use to make legacy media viscerally appealing can be simulated on a UX display However, the digital medium has a major unique quality - it allows users to manipulate the elements in a UX and interact with them. This opens up a whole new realm in which the designer can create visceral appeal. Think about a game such as Candy Crush; it’s easy to describe what is viscerally appealing about it. Swiping the candies to switch their locations is satisfying in that it is highly responsive and effortless. Many of the elements give a tiny bounce when you move them. There are resultant little explosions and sometimes, larger explosions with full-fledged explosion events. In a nutshell, it’s fast, responsive, bouncy and explosive.

I propose the design opportunities that offer visceral appeal, that are unique to UX design are very much associated with the behavior and responsiveness of interactive elements, such as the smoothness of a swipe, the bounce of a transition, the glow of a button. An important aspect of these elements is that they appear to contain energy, including kinetic energy. In our interaction with them as users, we are often either building energy or releasing energy. Causing a button to glow by tapping it is a kind of buildup of energy. Causing an action to occur by swiping to triggering a transition is a release of energy. In Candy Crush, certain elements in the game gain energy as the game progresses. The explosion of those elements either leads to failure (so you need to try to diffuse the explosion) or victory (so you try to make it happen). Some elements are bouncy like a body might be. They move with a velocity that causes them to bounce upon impact. The qualities that elicit a visceral response are velocity, speed, responsiveness, repetition, roundness, bounce and explosion – all qualities that contain energy.

Another piece of what adds to visceral appeal in a UX is the simulated tactile experience. The behavior of interface elements (buttons, tabs, lists, menus) which keys us into what their tactile quality might be, whether smooth, squishy, fast or draggy. All the feedback is visual or aural, but we can imagine how interface elements would feel if they were physical and we were actually touching them. We still get a sense of speed, acceleration, drag and de-acceleration. Elements can look hard or soft, transparent and light, or dense and heavy. Our imagination plays a part in how “tactile” an interface feels. The quality of the animation, the responsiveness and the feedback affect how well our imagination is stimulated by interface elements.

If we consider a more “straight”, UX, such as a photo app on a mobile device, the look and feel depends on some of the same “appealing” qualities that Candy Crush does. The slight bounce of scrolling a list view, the mild acceleration of a coverflow and the slide transitions between screens all contribute a satisfying feel. 

Although we can talk very generally about things that have visceral appeal, such as colors, speed, or texture, every medium or product has its own realm of viscerally appealing qualities, unique to its physical or non-physical “materials.” A user interface is complicated in that it is a multi-dimensional medium, combining visual layouts including 2D and 3D, animation and video including sound and is interactive like a tool, appliance or even like a living thing.

Today, designing a UX most closely relates to a combination of industrial design, cinematography and graphic design; although its unique quality is that it is interactive and thus appears to contains energy, in some cases life-like energy. Achieving visceral appeal in a UX is about hitting the right mark. It’s not just about adding as much wowwy zowwy stuff as you can cram into it. The more you add doesn’t mean it becomes more and more viscerally appealing. There is a scale, where too little is somewhat boring, but too much becomes repulsive.