Feeling Out the Research On Tactile Experiences

Take Away

Many designers don’t think about the tactile experiences that people have while using objects and spaces they’ve designed, but they should.  What we touch influences our thoughts and behaviors at a fundamental, largely pre-conscious, level.

General Effects of Tactile Experiences

Tactile sensations influence how we think and act.

Soft textures/surfaces are generally seen as more pleasant and preferred to hard ones (Childers and Peck, 2010). 

Zuo, Hope, Jones, and Castle studied human responses to metal surfaces (2004):  “Smooth metallic surfaces evoke [bring to mind] positive emotional responses such as lively/cheerful, modern, elegant, and comfortable; while rough metallic surfaces evoke negative emotional responses such as dull/depressing, traditional, ugly, and uncomfortable.”  Results were obtained after blindfolded touching; the rough textures resulted from sandblasting, and were not as rough as a metal file or nail file, etc.

Chen and her colleague focused “on the touch experience of a product’s surface and texture” (Chen, Shao, Barnes, Childs, and Henson, 2009). They investigated people’s tactile “perceptions of various textures, and explored the relationships between their perceptions and the surfaces’ physical properties.” One of the variables they included in their study was compliance – how much a material was deformed when the weight of a finger was applied to a paper-thin sheet of it. Among the more interesting findings was that perceived stickiness (as opposed to slipperiness) is higher for more compliant (easily deformed) surfaces with a high friction coefficient (generally, resistance encountered as a finger is moved along a surface).

Ackerman and his colleagues completed an interesting series of experiments linking tactile experiences and social judgments/behaviors (Ackerman, Nocera, and Bargh, 2010).  Their results show how significantly our sense of touch influences our worldview.  Study participants negotiating with others while sitting in soft chairs did not drive as hard a bargain as ones sitting on harder chairs without cushions.  The researchers conclude, “First impressions are liable to be influenced by the tactile environment, and control over this environment may be especially important for negotiators, pollsters, job seekers, and others interested in interpersonal communication.”

In the same series of studies, Ackerman and his team found that after people had held something soft, they judged someone they were asked to evaluate as more flexible and easygoing than others did after holding something hard and receiving the same information.  All contact with the hard and soft objects was ostensibly for reasons other than the evaluations made.  An example of the sort of soft object used in this study was a baby-type blanket while the hard objects were similar to toy blocks. 

Ackerman, Nocera, and Bargh also learned that touching smooth (like glossy paper) and rough (like sandpaper) surfaces affects our evaluations of other people’s interactions.  After holding things with smooth surfaces we feel the interactions we are asked to evaluate are more sociable and relaxed and after touching the rough surfaces we’re more apt to describe the same events we’ve read descriptions of as the opposite, more aggressive and tense.  In the studies Ackerman and his team completed with the soft and hard objects felt and the smooth and rough objects held, people and situations were evaluated after study participants had stopped holding the textured items.

People who feel something rougher are more empathetic to other people they don’t know or charities they’re unfamiliar with than individuals who feel something smoother and the individuals who experience that roughness are more likely to help other people or donate to charities that they’re unfamiliar with, again, than people who touch smoother surfaces (Wang, Zhu, and Handy, 2012). The researchers who uncovered this effect provide details of their study methodology: “To manipulate the haptic [touch] sensation, we used a moisturizing hand wash in the smooth condition, and a scrub hand wash in the second condition” or a sheet of smooth plastic and a piece of sandpaper.

Smoother textures are perceived as more feminine, and rougher textures, as more masculine (Krishna, Elder, and Caldara, 2010). 

Rooms with whose walls have a rougher texture are judged as being more spacious than rooms with smooth walls (Stamps and Krishnan, 2006).

Our tactile experiences are evaluated simultaneously with our other concurrent sensory ones (Konkle, Wang, Hayward, and Moore, 2009). Konkle, Wang, Hayward, and Moore explored ways in which what is felt via touch and what is seen influence each other – how something feels is influenced by what it looks like, and vice versa.

Information that we receive through various senses interacts (Blakeslee and Blakeslee, 2007). For example: “What you hear influences what you feel. . . .[if you rub your hands together while listening to various sounds] higher frequencies make you feel as if your hands are rough. Lower frequencies give the impression of your hands being smooth, although nothing about your hands has changed. Similarly, all else being equal, an electric toothbrush will feel more pleasant and less rough on your gums and teeth when the overall sound level is reduced.” Designers thus need to think simultaneously about the textures, sounds, sights, smells, etc., that users will experience.

Lucassen and his colleagues explored tactile associations to particular colors (Lucassen, Gevers, and Fijsenij, 2011).  Their research is of interest to designers trying to reinforce or alter perceptions of objects and spaces through the use of color and texture.  Saturated reddish colors were generally perceived as harder, saturated bluer colors as of intermediate hardness, and less-saturated blues as softer, with less saturated reds being considered as softest. 

Research by Dan King and Chris Janiszewski, indicates that human mood influences the experience of tactile pleasure (“Animal Instincts:  Why Do Unhappy Consumers Prefer Tactile Sensations?” 2011).  Researchers determined that “Consumers felt more pleasure from tactile attributes of products when they were in negative states, and more pleasure from visual aspects when they were in positive states. For example, in one experiment, participants who were in a negative affective state were more appreciative of the tactile qualities of a hand lotion, whereas those in a positive state were more appreciative of the lotion's visual qualities.”  This finding has repercussions for the design of retail spaces as well as others, such as healthcare sites, in which mood can reasonably be expected to occasionally be negative.

Textures Underfoot

Yudell, in Bloomer and Moore’s 1979 text, describes the importance of underfoot tactile experiences: “the fit and movements of our bodies within and around buildings are . . . significantly affected . . . by the tactile qualities of the surfaces and edges we encounter.  Smooth surfaces invite close contact, while rough materials such as hammered concrete generate movement in wide radii around corners and more careful, tentative movement through corridors.  Changes of texture often signal special events and can trigger a slowing or quickening of one’s pace.  It would be possible to generate a whole choreography of movement through the composition of textural changes alone.”

Standing on carpet in retail settings has an interesting effect on shoppers (Levy, Zhu, and Jiang, 2010). People standing on soft pile carpet while shopping are more comfortable than people who are shopping while standing on hard vinyl tile. However, while standing on carpet people find nearby products (easier to see) less comforting than objects that are further away but still close enough to be assessed. When standing on the vinyl flooring, harder to see objects were judged less comforting than easy to see objects. Retailers, for example, can use this information to merchandise stores, placing objects with varying profit margins at different relative distances from circulation paths to encourage desired perceptions.  This work can also inform the selection of flooring materials.

Researchers at Brigham Young University have found that balance influences decision-making (“Wearing High Heels Can Change the Way You Shop, 2013).  This research has repercussions for the selection of flooring materials, for example.   More specifically, “Consumers experiencing a heightened sense of balance [in other words, after something has caused them to think about whether they’re stable, or not] are more likely to weigh the options and go with a product that falls in the middle of the high-end, low-end scale. . . . Larson and . . . Billeter have discovered that most anything that forces your mind to focus on balance affects your shopping choices as well."  Women in high-healed shoes would be thinking about balance as they travel over cobblestone-like surfaces, for example.

The size of floor tiles influences shopping behavior.  As Heuvinck and Vermeir (2013) report:  “Some supermarkets vary the size of their floor tiles, with smaller tiles in areas with more expensive goods with the idea that, as you roll your trolley along and the clickety-click-click sound of the tiles becomes quicker, you instinctively slow down and, hopefully, look more intensively at the merchandise. This study empirically tests this assumption and, contrasting to what practitioners believe, shows that although customers . . .  actually spent less time walking along small tiles compared to big tiles/no tiles [size of floor tiles not specified] aisles leading to lower brand recall and brand recognition.” Therefore, using smaller tiles in some sections of a store distorts sales.

Touch and Biophilic Design

Humans are comfortable in biophilicly designed spaces.  For more information on biophilic design, read this article.  

Heerwagen and Gregory (2008) recommend that designers consider the full range of sensory experiences when designing biophilicly: “Natural environments have an abundance of odors, sounds, tastes, smells, haptic sensations, and visual patterns that fluctuate with time (daily and seasonal) and weather. This creates cyclical patterns, as well as irregular variation, such as the change in ambient air quality after a storm.” Not all biophilic touch sensations involve contact with textured materials; gently moving HVAC currents are also a biophilic tactile experience.


There has been extensive research on how the temperature of objects we touch and the air around us influences our thoughts and behaviors. Research consistently shows, for example, that when we’re comfortably warm we’re more social.   Research Design Connections has previous written about this topic here.  

Researchers have identified links between physical warmth and interpersonal warmth.  For example, Williams and Bargh compared the opinions of people who had just held warm drinks with people who had just held cold drinks and found that individuals whose hands had just been warmed judged others to be more generous and caring than people who had just held cold drinks (2008). Study participants put their drinks down a few minutes before these evaluations of other people were made.  In addition, people were more generous when their hands were warm because they had recently held something warm than when their hands were cold.  After touching something warm, people are also more trusting than after they’ve held something cold (Kang, Williams, Clark, Gray, and Bargh, 2011) and they’re more likely to cooperate with others after briefly holding something warm than they are after recently holding something cold (Storey, 2014).  Designers can apply this information by selecting materials for spaces that are particularly apt to retain heat, or not, as desired, for example.

Research by Zhong and Leonardelli has found that people who are socially excluded are literally cold (2008). Study participated estimated the temperature of the room that they were in as 70 after being excluded and 75 when they weren’t.  People may feel socially excluded in workplaces if they do not mesh socially with their colleagues, for example.

Gender-Based Differences in Tactile Experiences

Women usually have a better sense of touch than men, because their fingers are generally smaller than men’s fingers (“Smaller is Better for Finger Sensitivity,” 2009).  On smaller fingers, sensory receptors are more tightly packed.  This means that women are more likely to find disagreeable a slight rough texture on the arm of a chair in a gynecological clinic than men who sit in the same chair after it is relocated to a prostate cancer treatment center.  This disparity in sensory acuity also becomes relevant to designers when men with larger fingers select finishes that will be felt regularly by women with smaller fingers or when mixed sex groups are working together to select finishes, for example. 

In addition, women have a more positive response to texture-based detailing than men do; they enjoy it (Xue and Yen, 2007).

Retail Touching

Retail and other commercial spaces can be designed so visitors can touch items – and that physical contact seems like something to be encouraged.  Peck and Shu have found that simply touching an object increases a person’s possessive feelings toward it (2009). People are willing to pay higher prices for objects that they can touch than for objects that they cannot touch – as long as touching the object is a positive or neutral experience. If touching an object is unpleasant, the price people are willing to pay for it decreases.

 Take Away

Tactile experiences have a significant influence on the thoughts and behaviors of people with “standard” sensory apparatus, as discussed in this article.  They also have an important effect on the lives of people with sensory issues, as discussed in this article on designing to support blind people.  

Some of the influences of tactile experiences on our thoughts are particularly important.  For example, Nasar and Devlin (2011) found via research with photographs of psychotherapist offices that perceptions of “the quality of care, comfort, therapist boldness, qualifications of the therapist, and the likelihood that one would choose a therapist based on the office improved with increases in the office’s softness/personalization and order. Friendliness [perceived, of the psychotherapist] improved with increases in softness/personalization.” 

Nasar and Devlin used the following definitions:  “A soft office has lots of soft surfaces and textures—a soft upholstered chair, wall paper, curtains, thick carpeting, a throw rug, plants, table lamps, and movable furniture.  A hard office has hard smooth surfaces (floor, wall, furniture) throughout and bright lighting.”  Personalization was defined as well, “A personalized office has mementos and personal signs of the occupant, such as pictures of family members, photographs, sculptures/knickknacks, plants, diplomas/certificates of achievement, books, and personal items like a blanket or article of clothing.  An impersonal one lacks such mementos or personal signs.”  Experts rated the photographs used on orderliness, softness and personalization, and these ratings were independent of the surveys of people who shared their opinions of the therapists. 

Devlin, Nasar, and Cubukcu learned that clients have similar responses to therapists’ offices regardless of their national culture (in press).  The team collected information in the US, Turkey, and Vietnam, finding that there were “strong correlations between responses by participants from each country. Perceived quality of care and comfort improved with increases in office softness/personalization and orderliness.”

Analyzing Maya Lin’s design for the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial (VVM) and the responses of Vietnam veterans to it, Watkins and his colleagues identified elements of the structure associated with the reduction of posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms among Vietnam combat veterans (2010).   The memorial has a reflective finish and the names of those who died are etched into that surface.  Watkins and his colleagues report that “A careful composition of responsive and tactile media like mirror-finish materials, etchings, daylight and shadows, surfaces of water, echoes, and plants are design elements that prompt curiosity, attract the eye, invite touch, and may serve as artifacts of the user’s presence.  The sensory and symbolic qualities of these design elements can be carefully manipulated so that a memorial creates a physical and psychological demarcation between the user and the loss commemorated.  As such, the user is given an actual threshold through which to commune with a loss.” 

Clearly, designers must consider users’ tactile experience of objects and places they design. 

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“Animal Instincts:  Why Do Unhappy Consumers Prefer Tactile Sensations?”  2011. Press release, University of Chicago Press Journals, http://ejcr.org.

Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee.  2007.  The Body Has a Mind of Its Own.   Random House:  New York.

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Ann Devlin, Jack Nasar, and Ebru Cubukcu.  “Students’ Impressions of Psychotherapists’ Offices:  Cross-Cultural Comparisons.”  Environment and Behavior, in press.

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Aradhna Krishna, Ryan Elder, and Cindy Caldara.  2010.  “Feminine to Smell But Masculine to Touch?  Multisensory Congruence and Its Effect on the Aesthetic Experience.” Journal of Consumer Psychology, vol. 20, no. 4, pp. 410-418.

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“Wearing High Heels Can Change the Way You Shop.”  2013.  Press release, Brigham Young University, http://news.byu.edu.

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