A Sense of Design: Creating Multi-Sensory Experiences with Data

Sep 10, 2019 by Katherine Haugh Comments (0)

Imagine you are watching a play, except, instead of sitting in a normal theater seat, you find yourself as part of the scenery. There are actors behind you, above you, next to you. You are surrounded by bright lights, rough textures, and woodsy aromas. You are not simply watching a performance; you are a part of it.

This is the ethos behind Sleep No More, a play that launched the immersive theatre trend in 2011. The idea behind the play is to take the audience through an experience that they are actively involved in. Participants in the play see, smell, hear, and feel the performance; they embody the experience through sensory immersion.

The theory behind this format is that the more immersive the performance is, the more resonant it will be. A growing body of research shows that the more sensory our experiences are, the more memorable they are. According to studies on this topic, involving our full range of senses in experiences not only makes them more accessible for a wider range of people, but also makes them more memorable. That’s because, according to some researchers, there is a connection between sensory experiences and emotion on the one hand and between emotion and motivation to act on the other. In short, engaging all our senses can move us more quickly and fully to action.

Hearing about Sleep No More made me wonder: would involve more of our senses in the sharing of information make the information more resonant with users? What would happen if we made sharing information more experiential for participants? In the field of international development, we are learning the power of data visualization in creating reports; according to the handful of studies I have read, it may be even more powerful to engage other senses as well.

Here are some ideas I have about what this could look (smell, sound, and feel) like in practice:

  1. Build upon data visualization. To increase the sensory experience of information, we could involve other senses in addition to sight. For example, an emerging data trend, called data sonification, translates data into sound values. Numbers are turned into scales of pitch, volume, and rhythm. Check out this project that used data sonification to literally hear income inequality and global movement of refugees.
  2. Create a physical experience. Even though we are not always in person with our audiences, we could create opportunities for participants to physically experience data and information. See, for example, National Geographic’s report on malnutrition in children that includes a cut out wristband with a measure of a malnourished child’s arm.
  3. Engage emotions. Our emotions play a big role in how we interpret data. That’s because, according to some studies, there is a strong link between emotion and decision-making. For example, the SeeingData project found that viewers are more likely to learn from a data visualization if they had a pleasant emotional experience viewing it. Instead of removing emotions from the process, we could actively integrate them into how we design the experience participants go through when they engage with data.

What your thoughts about integrating all of our senses into the sharing of data in our field? How have you helped your audience experience data? What has been the result? Leave your comments below.