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  • Danny

Mary Poppins & Experience Design (Part 1)

Updated: Jan 28, 2022

Only got 50 seconds, here are the key take aways:
  • Sense of smell was the first of our senses to develop

  • It bypasses the 'normal' route of our other senses

  • Sense of smell is a super power for storytelling and under used in true experience design

I've been lucky enough to work and apply experience design (XD) and sensory design to a lot of projects. One of my biggest aha moments was realising Mary Poppins was on to something with 'a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down', not only did you realise something about taste they also created a story and well remembered narrative. You see, flavour doesn't really come from taste, it comes from a sense of smell, taste is actually really basic as it can only really pick up on sweet, sour or bitter. All these amazing tastes and flavours you get outside of that group is actually due to your sense of smell but let me try next an experiment to show you this...

A simple experiment (skip this if you do believe me)

1. Put a teaspoon of cinnamon into the palm of your hand

2. Put a teaspoon of sugar on top of the cinnamon and mix it up (with the spoon)

3. Pinch your nose really tight (with the free hand)

4. keeping your nose pinched, put that mix into your mouth don't swallow it yet

Now what's probably happening is you're probably getting the sweet taste of the sugar but the cinnamon just isn't coming through,

5. Swallow the mix and then un-pinch your nose,

It's at this point the cinnamon is kicking in... see Mary Poppins was really on to something

I don't think the sense of smell gets the credit it deserves but when it comes to experience design, learning and even space design it's critical and more importantly it is being used on you every single day by brands. In order to understand how important it is to learning, space and so on we first have to look at how smell works.

How smell and the brain

Disclaimer. I am not a neuroscientist, this is a very very high level overview and I am simplifying evolutionary biology.

Our brain has a kind of relay system when it comes to senses such as sight and hearing, these signals all pass through a relay system in our brain first before it signals out to specific sections our brain.

However, the sense of smell is a bad boy for life, it passes this relay system and has it's own pathway direct to the brain, this is down to the fact our sense of smell was actually the first sense to be developed

Route of smell

First, a scent goes through millions of receptors in your nose and hit something called the olfactory bulb, this is kind of like the smell centre. What's really interesting is the olfactory bulb is directly connected to the amygdala, this plays a key role in processing of emotions. This is why we can have an intense response when we smell something we really don't like (for me this is Sambuca). The amygdala is connected to the hippocampus and the hippocampus is vital with memory and learning. It's thought that this direct loop between the olfactory bulb the amygdala and hippocampus explains why a certain smell can trigger an intense emotion and can transport you back to a certain moment in time in vivid detail.

Extended reading:

Loss a sense of smell and this being a early indication to Alzheimer's (simplified)

London cabbies have bigger Hippos

Psychopaths and their amygdala

Coming up next:

Part 2: How Experience Design is used on us

Part 3: Case study

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