Visceral Apps and You

by Rob Foster

All of us have experienced the unique sensation of having our guts move from their normal resting positions. Whether from a roller coaster or a dive into a pool, it’s a shared human experience. In fact, as humans, we go to great lengths to feel extreme versions of kinetic energy and the exhilaration it provides.

The term "visceral" describes this sensation pretty well. Visceral refers to the gut, rather than the mind. Our brain may try to talk us out of jumping off a cliff, but as soon as we take that first step into the void, our guts take over. We respond with a rush of emotion and we can’t help but scream from terror or euphoria. It’s a purely visceral reaction.


As humans, we also innately enjoy the release of built-up pressure. From a sheet of large bubble wrap, to the cracking of knuckles to sneezing. We can’t help but love the release of pressure and energy.

Our human affinity for this build-up and release also manifests itself in the way we relate to things outside of our body. We like explosions, videos of people being hurled into space and we can’t help but slow down to see the result of a car crash on the freeway. And when we were kids, we built a tower of blocks only so we could knock it down again.

Whether it’s happening to us or we’re just bystanders, as humans, we are captivated with the interplay between the build-up and the release; between potential and kinetic energy. And as app developers, we can leverage this interplay to enhance our apps.


Angry Birds. To me, it’s no surprise that this avian juggernaut is arguably the most successful mobile game ever. This game speaks directly to the gut. It has everything we love in a visceral experience. It has the build up and release of pressure, the interplay between potential and kinetic energy and wanton destruction.

But Angry Birds isn’t the only example of this. When you look at some of the most popular software user experiences in recent years, you'll see a visceral pattern emerge.


We take it for granted now, but when the iPhone first came out, the bounce at the end of a scroll pane was mesmerizing. I couldn’t stop playing with it. Heck, it was unique enough that Steve Jobs patented it.

A few years later Loren Brichter would take that initial rubber band interaction and make it even more visceral with “pull to refresh.” This is an action so deeply satisfying that it was copied endlessly and eventually adopted by Apple itself.

When the video for Clear came out, everyone talked about how beautifully minimalist it was and how incredible the gestures were. And while that’s all true, I believe that’s not what makes Clear so insanely satisfying. Just take a few seconds and watch the intro video again. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Man, if that isn't just a visceral app at its finest. It’s got build-up and release. It’s got destruction. It’s got the kinetic and the potential.

Ok, last example. Path [update: Path died an ignominious death in 2018] is another gorgeous app. It’s visually stunning, it’s elegant, it’s the epitome of sweating the details. It was one of the first apps to really capitalize on the slide-out-from-the-edge menu. It has this rad little clock whose arms spin as you scroll. It has parallax. But even with all that, when everyone was talking about it, they kept mentioning the same thing. That slick little red plus menu in the corner. If you’ve used it, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Here’s a video if you don’t.

People love that menu. Everyone I know that has ever used Path loves that menu. It’s their favorite part of the whole experience.

I believe it’s because the “springy” animation creates a small visceral reaction in our gut. We see the result of built-up pressure in the way the icons spring out and settle into place. Tapping that icon actually releases endorphins.

All of the apps mentioned above exhibit that same kinetic/potential interplay. They’re the UX version of bubble wrap.


For the past few years, I’ve been watching the buzz around various products and trying to figure out just what it was that made them so tantalizing. Obviously, great UI and beautiful graphics are important. The use of white space, typography and functionality are all critical. Great apps also have great attention to detail. It’s important to really nail each of these things.

But in addition to all this, there has been this intangible element I couldn’t put my finger on, until now.

So here’s my theory: I believe that introducing visceral elements into an app will take it past the point of just being awesome. It will make your app speak to the subconscious, built-in affinity that humans have for the physical properties I mentioned before. I believe that even if you designed the most perfect and useful app possible, that the act of adding in these visceral elements will make people love your app on an even deeper level.

Let me put it another way:

I believe when properly done, a visceral app actually causes your body to release endorphins.

I’ve heard people describe certain apps as being “alive” and I think this is precisely what they meant. Potential and kinetic. Build-up and release.

Mmmmmmm, endorphins.


Here are a couple of things to think about with regard to visceral apps…

I believe that the use of sound effects can enhance the visceral reaction, as long as they are subtle and can be turned off when needed. Think about bubble wrap. It’s great without sound, but the little pop makes it a hundred times better. In fact, we’re disappointed when the air rushes out rather than making that satisfying snap.

Also, if you can’t make the animation fluid for customers, it might be better not to use them at all. When the first Android phones came out, I read a slew of articles maligning the choppy scrolling animation (which they still haven’t really fixed yet). In contrast, Apple may not have nailed every interaction on the first version of the iPhone, but they certainly nailed this. The scrolling and its little bounce at the end was as smooth as butter from day one. I believe that by incorporating visceral elements and then failing to make them work actually has a subconscious effect in the other direction. It becomes a turn-off for people.


The great thing about this is that it can be applied to the off-the-shelf components as well as to fancy-schmancy custom ones. Heck, even with JavaScript, easing and other physical elements are relatively easy to apply. People want their bubble wrap, or to be more precise, their guts want it. And guts are hard to argue with.

Have fun out there folks and use your powers for awesome.