A series of trends investigating how visual and interaction design patterns will change according to the broader trends in society, technology and the design realm.

By Audrey Cruchade and Sarmite Polakova, designers at Digital Agency Mirabeau

What's going on?

As our eyesight is working overtime while constantly looking at the screen, all other senses are left behind. With the increased popularity of touchscreen over alternative input methods, most of our sensory experience is now limited to a shiny surface, clicks, scrolls and pans.

In the design realm products, interiors, as well as fabrics have taken up the challenge to compensate for this imbalance and therefore are becoming increasingly tactile. Even our electronic devices are turning softer in order to seamlessly blend within our mobile and nomadic lifestyle. Products like Google Softwear are examples of this rising trend.

However, not only are we hungry for tactile surfaces, we rather wish to experience something more vividly, involving multiple senses. Think about Experimental Dinners with no cutlery but only hands instead; technological extensions of our hands and skin that enable us to “feel” within the digital reality; or shopping experiences that allow the user to be a part of making the product.

“Super technology is going to ask for super tactility” — Li Edelkoort

The lack of haptic involvement in our daily environment also forces our digital devices to transform correspondingly. These changes often go hand in hand with technological advances, which enable us to reach new levels of experiences.

The trend

Let’s think of the screen as a living surface that reflects and reacts to our touch and gestures. The focus here is mainly on interaction patterns and visual tools that enable physicality rather than skeuomorphism.

“How can the content on screen turn more tactile?”


The regular convention of feedback in UX is to inform the person on the other side of the screen about their actions and progress. However, let’s imagine feedback as a manner to provoke the desired sensation in people or enhance their digital experience. Feedback can be the chasing game between the user’s gestures and elements on the screens; they dance correspondingly. Digital particles change and react towards the pointer’s movements. How about the user being able to adjust not only the size of the screen but also the separate components, thus changing the layout and content according to their preferences?

Adding a little resistance in the design can give interesting results. On mobile devices this is already happening all the time. For example, the screen bounces back when we get to the edge of the screen. By adding an ‘elastic band’ that stretches and gives more and more resistance to a scrubber can help people to choose the right option. Ewout van Lambalgen, designer at Mirabeau

Then, there is synesthesia. This neurological condition is currently serving as an inspiration in UX as a method to evoke emotions. Normally, a person who has Synesthesia might see colors while reading words and smell scents while hearing music. Think about the opportunities of how user interfaces can extend the scope to accommodate multi-sensorial experiences.

But how does this work? Of course, technology and electrodes are needed to accommodate this; however, the development progress is happening fast. For example, in 2017 Facebook revealed its research lab “Building 8” that is converting language into braille-like stimulations on the skin to convey words through touch. There is also the IPhone X, the first mass popular application, capturing facial expressions in real time. The next step is being able to react and reflect this information back to the user in an empathic way. Let's get ready!

While the technology is being developed, artists and designers are researching the concept of this condition to apply into a digital interface. Imagine smelling scents while seeing an image; interfaces that rely more on feeling rather than reading; designs that adjust to human mood and the environment; rhythmic awareness as an immersive flow; goosebumps as a result of seeing something exciting.

Conversing layers

The advantage of tactility in combination with technology is that it not always needs to be experienced physically. Instead, digital designs can be links to the physical world or apply the rules of nature, light, gravity and patterns. The problem is that the screen is often seen as a translation of paper instead of considering the different opportunities it possesses. That results in flat and linear interfaces. However, digital technology allows human expressions to exist without these physical constraints, enabling it to exist independently and evolve freely. Let’s look at nature — surfaces are almost never flat. There is flickering light and shadow, depth and reflection. Such characteristics are familiar to us and when applied in different contexts they are still recognized. Therefore, they can fuse the physical with the digital.

Tactility can also be immaterial. It can be a strong and familiar link to the physical world that creates a new sense of closeness. Imagine the lock screen of your phone portraying the skylight of the day according to the time of the day. Mariëlla van de Stolpe, designer at Mirabeau

Recently dynamic backgrounds have gained popularity due to breaking flat backgrounds. Tools such as Web GL create immersive experiences, however, often it is added as a decoration instead of a function. What if the background had an actual connection to the physical world, such as a reflection of shadow, sun, and even the landscape? In late 2017 when Mirabeau worked on its rebranding, the initial idea for the website was to find a way how physical characteristics can enter the screen. Textures and signs of wear should also appear on the web, just like they do on printed media. The web is so flat and perfect. It appears the same whether it’s visited for the first or the thousandth time. Paper, on the other hand, reflects light and texture while revealing traces of touch over time.

“Sight is our dominant sense. We constantly rely on it as we study and categorize our surroundings. But experiencing the world mainly through our eyes creates a distance between the object and ourselves. By touching it we connect with it.”
(Juhani Pallasmaa, “The eyes of the skin”)