How to Design for a World Without Touch

Using voice, simulation and even smell to fill the void

In a touchless world, we need to—and can—fill the void. Kacy Burdette

Over the past several months, touch has been increasingly removed from our daily lives. A recent study showed that 42% of American adults report feeling deprived of touch. A similar study in the New York Times found 42% of Americans also expected it to be at least a year before they’d be willing to shake a friend’s hand or hug them to say hello. That’s a long time to go without the feelings of intimacy, positivity, and love elicited by touch.

Science has proven that when we hug or feel friendly human contact, our brains release oxytocin, bolstering positive sensations, emotional and social connections, as well as a sense of trust. Simultaneously, those interactions also help combat feelings of fear and anxiety. So as we enter months of no touching, it’s not shocking that we’re also seeing higher rates of anxiety and depression. While those mental health issues aren’t linked solely to the lack of touch, it underscores the truth that touch affects us not only physically, but emotionally.

The past few years have been a race to introduce new touch-based technologies. Our beloved public touchpads are now looked upon with skepticism and a bottle of hand sanitizer.

We need to create connections. This is an opportunity for innovation inspired by human insight and empathy, not just technology.

With any loss, there’s a growing need to fill a void.

Science suggests that when we lose one sense, the others start working overtime. Designing for a “touchless” world means leaning into new multisensory solutions and experiences.

These four sensory-driven design opportunities can help deliver not just the practical, but the emotional and physical benefits of touch in new ways.

The next best thing to the real thing

Thanks to technology, we can simulate touch. Introduced decades ago across a number of applications, haptic technology applies force, vibrations or motions to users to realistically simulate touch. While most of the general consumer population may recognize it through video games and the Apple Watch, today there’s a broader opportunity to apply haptic or other technologies to create feelings of intimacy or connection without actually touching. Imagine being able to hug your parents or an immuno-compromised friend from afar, rather than merely seeing them on a screen. Imagine adding a hug to a greeting card. Startup Hey Bracelet was introduced to help the 3.71 million married couples in long-distance relationships by sending a “gentle squeeze that mimics the feeling of human touch”—a product that could now have more meaning and practical value than ever.

The time for voice

The adoption of voice technology has already been on a healthy trajectory; by late last year, it was estimated that over 50% of all searches would occur via voice. New statistics show that voice-based shopping is expected to jump to $40 billion in 2022. A post-pandemic world will only accelerate the proliferation of voice from a practical standpoint. ATMs, ticket stations, and even elevators that have all long relied on touch-based operation could all be rapidly reconfigured for voice-activation. But voice could also evolve in both personal and collective ways.

The role of voice assistants may evolve beyond simple functional support to also offering emotional support and companionship. There’s an opportunity to design more empathy into the response frameworks.

Look but don’t touch

After months of seeing others through screens, new applications of visual communication are poised to change how we interact with both people and products.

While XBox Kinect received buzz for using gestural technology, the door is now open for broader use and adoption of gestures to power experiences. Lululemon’s recent acquisition of Mirror suggests new workout solutions that don’t require touch. With continued nervousness about public fitness centers, VR solutions like FitXR or other VR headsets could become the next must-have fitness device, and brands like OrangeTheory and Soul Cycle could see more opportunity in selling connected devices or virtual memberships than in their traditional brick-and-mortar models.

Britt Fero is principal of PB&.