Making Sense of Scents

Describing and enhancing the human experience, nose first

Margaret P
Mar 21, 2019 · 6 min read
Image description: A woman stands on a rock, holding a bouquet of flowers that covers her face. Water surrounds her. 📷: Tealeaves

Aroma can elicit joy, transport us immediately to a different place, or even inspire us to purchase products. The word “scent” comes from Latin, meaning to feel or perceive. “Our sense of smell is directly connected to our emotions. Smells trigger very powerful and deep-seated emotional responses,” said Kate Fox, a social anthropologist.

Ultimately, aroma has a power to enhance the human experience. We breathe over 23,000 times a day — that’s 23,000 moments of taking in information. We might easily register potently negative aromas (walking by a sewer) or positive aromas (walking by a bakery), but the subtleties in between can get lost in our goal-oriented days. In our current cultural quest for presence and mindfulness, why aren’t we more conscious of the scents around us and the roles they play in our lives? How many of us can describe the scent we’re taking in? The human ability to recognize scent and communicate aroma is often limited.

Similar to wine, a tea vocabulary feels inaccessible or even elitist to most. When calling wine “vinegar” at a nice restaurant for example, I — a wine novice — was met with disdain. So, what might going beyond descriptive language do for us? For example, describing a scent like “this smells like a joyful sunny afternoon.” Yet, one person’s joy is another persons sorrow. Much like an emotional vocabulary encourages self-awareness, enables framing, and leads to healthy relationships with ourselves and those around us, an aromatic vocabulary could do the same.

Image description: Smell is evasive. It lacks a vocabulary. To describe a smell is to dance around it. Words like “abrasive,” “buttery,” “clammy,” and “effervescent,” are listed on the side of the image. 📷: Ruth Starr and the Cooper Hewitt

Our scent processing power can depend on a variety of factors: congestion, literacy, self-awareness, a trained nose.

Image description: On the persona spectrum of aroma, ansomia is on the left, congestion is in the middle, low-aroma literacy is on the right. Designing for inclusivity. #LanguageOfAroma.

What if we could recognize, understand, and communicate aroma? How might we connect with ourselves and the world around us in more ways?

To answer these questions, we can learn a lot from traditional experts like aroma scientists, sommeliers, and chefs. But it’s important to bring in diverse opinions for an inclusive approach.

We can learn from anyone who works to communicate through universal languages, from urban planners to authors and designers. Even dogs fall into this category–our olfactory prosthetics provide us an inspired view into navigating life with our noses. Alexandra Horowitz’s book Being a Dog: Following the Dog into the World of Smell details the wealth of information we overlook in what is often a visual-first world. “By following the dog’s lead, we can learn from him about what we are missing — some of which is beyond our ability to sense, and some of which we simply need a guide to see. The world abounds with aromas, but we are spectacle-less. The dog can serve as our spectacles.”

The idea that we can’t “see” the aroma experiences we may be missing emphasizes a key hurdle in designing with scent in mind. Finding more holistic ways to talk about sensory experiences is an integral step toward a future that engages all our senses.

In a multi-year collaboration, Tealeaves tapped the scientific community to explore the language of scents. Partnering with Distinguished Professor Jörg Bohlmann at the University of British Columbia, they performed headspace gas chromatography on 10 different teas. Using data visualization, they created tea aroma wheels, tools people can use individually or in a group setting to compare teas. Their hope is that these wheels may spark the beginnings of a universal language of aroma — one step on a longer journey to leverage multiple senses to create shared meaning.

Image description: There is a colorwheel with “chamomile” in the middle. Descriptions of different scents like “minty,” “almond,” “leafy,” “floral” and “fruity,” line the wheel.

For a deeper view, take a look at our exploration through this documentary. It explores the nature of aroma as a nuanced but powerful driver of experience. Scents give us an opportunity to become fully present and begin a self-dialogue about how we’ve changed since a moment from memory or perhaps what we learned from it.

We’re not all in the field of aroma design but there’s still a lot we can learn from the principles that guide these efforts. As we strive toward inclusivity, here are a few considerations:

  1. Understand your bias: We make assumptions and associations based on our lived experience. In the world of aromas this leads us to olfactory stereotyping about anything from food to our bodies. In product design, this can lead to creating for not with customers. How can we practice more mindfulness about when we make assumptions on someone else’s behalf?
  2. Explore how we can engage the senses to enhance human experience: People have multiple senses working together at any given time. The brain is hardwired to work with the combination of these signals and reconcile any conflicts between the senses. How do we dial up and dial down different senses to interact with the world around us?
  3. Learn from non-traditional places: Look outside your industry for insight. While we at Microsoft aren’t in the business of aroma making, we can learn from biology, pathology, and psychology about building positive emotional experiences and universal languages at scale.

As a practice of self-reflection, I’m going to start cataloging the scents I experience and my association with them. Lemongrass, for instance, takes me instantly to Indonesia, where I used a natural insect repellent nightly on my first international all-women’s surf camp. My mind jumps to values of independence and growth that this trip embodied; I had been saving for several years to go and it was a moment of pride to make it happen.

I’d like to curate a home library of aromas to draw from as a next step. These can evoke memory as journal prompts, stimulate specific emotions, and help create a stronger connection between the mind and body. Lemongrass for freedom as a start. Join me?

Join us in New York at the Smithsonian, Cooper Hewitt May 16, 2019 for more on this topic.

We had a lightly guided conversation at SXSW this year. Below is the “conversation menu” we used. Take a look and use at in the team room or the family room if it’s inspirational to you!


  • Name a scent that evokes a specific positive memory for you. Share with the group.
  • Smell and taste what’s in front of you. Describe the scent.
  • What do you find interesting or confusing about how another person described the scent and why?


  • You’re watching a cooking show about an unfamiliar dish. How might the chef provide information to give you a sense of the smell and flavor?
  • How might talking about scent create a shared experience?
  • Who might be excluded from connecting over aroma?


  • How could we learn from diverse perspectives to build a shared language for aroma?
  • If you had a vocabulary for aroma, how would it impact your world?

To stay in-the-know with Microsoft Design, follow us on Twitter and Facebook, or join our Windows Insider program. And if you are interested in joining our team, head over to

Microsoft Design

Putting technology on a more human path, one design story at a time.

Margaret P

Written by

Explorer of Human Nature, Design Innovation, Empathy-building @ Microsoft. Inclusive Design leader. @margaprice on Instagram

Microsoft Design

Putting technology on a more human path, one design story at a time.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade