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  • Donna De Leo

The Power of Touch: The Haptic Effect

True confession

I’ve never owned a Kindle or other ebook reader. I still prefer reading paperback books, doggy-eared and sandy from an afternoon spent on the beach. True confession, I’m not a fan of e-cards. I much prefer to find a handwritten letter from a friend in my mailbox.

In my professional life, however, it’s a different story. As a creative director it’s imperative I stay on top of the latest trends and best practices in web and mobile design. I find it challenging and thought provoking to design those user experiences.

I’ve been reading a lot about haptic stimuli and I’m beginning to feel validated in some of my nostalgic tendencies. If you’re not familiar with the term, haptic, it relates to our sense of touch. Only recently have scientists discovered just how important touch is in shaping our relationships and perceptions. The simple act of touching an object, like a catalog, brochure, or direct mail piece, stimulates psychological effects. Given two brochures to touch, people will perceive the company using the heavy, high-quality stock as a better company. “Digital content can be seen and heard, but print can be touched, smelt, and even tasted. If it’s intimacy that sets touch apart from our other senses, then it’s the physicality of print, it's substantial tactile nature, that makes it such a meaningful way to communicate.”1

Our hands hold the greatest number of tactile receptors in our body

It’s astonishing when you consider what our fingers are able to distinguish the difference between hot and cold, soft and hard, slick and dry, a pain and an itch.

It’s their immense capacity for touch that makes them such powerful non-verbal communication tools. Yet as the Information Age has progressed, digital devices have taken over many of the jobs we used to do with our hands. We rely more and more on technology that requires swiping and sliding. What can’t be replicated online (at least not yet) is that intimate experience of running your fingers along a swatch of fine silk fabric or across a thick sheet of textured paper. While technology continues to improve the user experience by creating new touch sensations on digital and handheld devices by adding subtle vibrations and motions to capture the haptic effect, it has a long way to go to satisfy people's natural craving for texture, temperature and muscle engagement.

Many in our industry thought that print would become defunct

Nevertheless, studies have revealed some intriguing facts. “People understand and remember what they read on paper better than what they read online.”2 In another study, university students found print to be more aesthetically enjoyable. “What’s more, print gave them a sense of where they were in the book – they could see and feel where they were in the text.”3

While the print industry has certainly seen a decline, print catalogs have started to trend up for the first time in years. “Retailers shifting to online catalogs found sales plummeting, as people missed the haptic qualities of the catalogs they were used to.” 4

Those making purchases online were doing so after first browsing the print catalog.

While the mailing of catalogs is experiencing a rebound, it’s important to note, the form has changed dramatically. What used to be page after page of products is now filled with large photo spreads and inspirational personal stories appealing to a particular lifestyle. If you’ve ever flipped through a Williams Sonoma catalog, the popular high-end kitchenware store, you’ll find seasonal recipes are now interspersed with cookware.

In the example of print catalogs, what’s really noteworthy is the old media (print) has not been replaced by the new (digital). Instead, we’re seeing a convergence and refining of the two. The best qualities of each media are being leveraged to produce a beneficial outcome for the marketer.


Further Reading:

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