As a digital brand experience designer and marketer, I’m constantly thinking of things that need a UX makeover. Sleep, for example, tops my list as I’ve become a new dad during a pandemic.
My biggest pet peeve? Being woken up. I can forgive my infant son, but that thing called an “alarm clock”? Now that needs a rebrand. Who needs to wake up in a panic?
Not me (or you). This is what drew me to back a Kickstarter project called OneClock. The creators nailed a universal problem: cell phones make shitty alarm clocks. (Apple’s default alarm sound, for example, is “radar.” Even the name makes me feel trapped and under attack.)
Now that I just received the finished product, I’m obsessed for many reasons, from the Dieter Rams vibes to the soothing ambient tones (beautifully composed by Jon Natchez from The War on Drugs and a Grammy-winning artist), smooth organic wood facade, and grooved control knobs.
As you can tell, I’m super amped about something that’s beyond basic: an analog clock. There’s something oddly satisfying at the intersection of simplicity and aesthetics. And that, from a UX perspective, is a place where more brands need to explore.
“Oddly satisfying” videos have been a thing for several years now, thanks to a 2013 subreddit that today boasts more than six million subscribers who enjoy watching things like glazing a cake, peeling wrapping off a dishwasher, or watching ants eat liquid candy.
Did you click on any of the links? Please do… I’m waiting patiently, gently tapping on my keyboard.
Just kidding — that’s not me; it’s an example of an oddly satisfying adjunct: Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR). That’s when you have a physical reaction like the tingles or a fuzzy feeling to aural or visual stimuli (or both). It starts at your scalp or neck and travels down your spine to create a sense of deep relaxation that can help diffuse stress and anxiety and increase well-being.
Both ASMR and oddly satisfying videos have been a trend for years, and their staying power has to do with the biochemical response to those neurological triggers. Thanks to mirror neurons — neurons in our brain that activate when we see someone doing something, so it feels like we’re also doing it — the audience is in flow with the action. Certain images and sounds activate a viewer’s parasympathetic nervous system, releasing bliss chemistry like dopamine and serotonin and triggering the “rest and digest” response to counteract the usual churn of stress chemistry (i.e., adrenaline and cortisol).
Of course, this is nothing new to marketers. Using mesmerizing imagery of, say, a chef frosting an incredible cake, a sommelier pouring champagne, or a couple sitting before a crackling fire, has been used forever by advertisers to capture our attention. These perfect moments are at once mundane and also special because, of course, it’s experts doing these visually and aurally stimulating activities.
The regular people behind popular ASMR and oddly satisfying videos get millions of views for precisely the same reasons. Elevate the ordinary to extraordinary — the colors, sounds, and textures — and an emotional connection that has a pleasant and positive pay-off is formed.
In our post-pandemic time, this is a crucial aspect of the marketer’s mission. I feel like we’re in this paradox of time right now where we’re all filling our days with sensory overload from living online and being routinely barraged by bad news. Anxiety and depression worldwide are at an all-time high, and thanks to our 24/7 connected world, looking away can seem impossible.
This is when design can and should come to the rescue.
Morphing Into a More Satisfying World
So, the analog clock to me is not just a symbol of design perfection. It’s also a physical artifact that reminds me of the clocks in my childhood home. We need this kind of simplicity sprinkled with nostalgia to bring us out of our screens and ground us in a comfortable, tactile space.
Going back to the 1990s and even the 1980s, as our world became digital, skeuomorphism was a friendly gateway to help users adjust to unfamiliar territory. Steve Jobs and Apple, of course, headed that movement. Want to teach people how to get rid of files? Give them a trash can to drag it into, and while you’re at it, make it oddly satisfying with the sound effect of plunking something in the can or crinkling paper.
As Jobs said, “Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works.”
Skeuomorphism has gone in and out of style over the years, and, of course, there was a long stretch of flat design in between. Now that we’re in the neumorphism age, which embraces both minimalism and real-world elements to stimulate a sense of comfort and familiarity, UI is becoming more and more oddly satisfying.
For me, it comes down to not just the usability of an interface but also its gratuitous nature.
My favorite example is the HotelTonight logo, which is at once beautiful in its simplicity, engaging, and protective. You have to trace the bed-shaped logo to agree to terms of service and complete a booking. There’s something very satisfying when that all goes through.
The proof is in the results: This UI feature boosted HotelTonight’s revenue by 10% each year.
People pay good money to feel comforted, and the best interfaces go out of their way to make it simple for people to relax and enjoy their experience.
Can You Feel It?
Bringing a tactile sense to a digital campaign is tricky, so I’m going to share a quick example of how my team accomplished just that with an actual oddly satisfying product: a proprioceptive product line called Naboso.
“Proprioceptive” senses are those related to motion, and Naboso’s founder, Dr. Emily Splichal, is a podiatrist and sensory science expert. She initially created mats, insoles, and flooring to stimulate small nerves in the feet and enhance movement for better balance, performance, and overall wellness.
The products are strategically textured to create a neurological connection. But they have the bonus appeal of having the kind of plastic ridges that ASMR aficionados love to stroke.
Naboso’s latest product, Sensory Sticks, is made for both hands and feet. Like the original products, it activates proprioceptive senses for an enhanced grip, better workout, and relaxes the hands (or feet).
To make that oddly satisfying connection, the art direction used neutral background colors complimented by an arresting “bright lime” product color. Not only did this serve as the core color of differentiation for this product, but it allowed for the flexibility of experimenting with light and dark exposures, heroing texture, and flexibility in unique ways.
Just looking at those sticks rotate is like getting a psychic rubdown — you can literally feel a release of pressure. And I can vouch for how oddly satisfying they are IRL, as my team members are showing up to meetings, sticks in hand. I keep a mat under my desk, as I feel more alert and focused when I’m standing on it.
The principles we used for the sticks are the same we used to launch a previous insole product, the Naboso Duo. In that case, the strategic look and feel of the insoles combined with our go-to-market strategy yielded returns that felt great to the company (and to us): a YOY Sales increase of 118% during Q4 (in the middle of the Covid-19 global pandemic, no less). And that product launch success accounted for 25% of all product revenue into 2021.
From alarm clocks to insoles and workout sticks, the key takeaway is to keep things simple. The irony of the oddly satisfying is that it’s no mystery why it works: tap into the right neurology, and you create magical moments of connection, joy, and relaxation.