Making Sense of Scents - Perception of Smell

Making Sense of Scents

Inclusive Aroma with Microsoft Design

Margaret Price
Margaret Price
Nathalie Attallah
Durian Green Tea

Margaret Price is an explorer of the relationship between culture, humanity, and, technology. She draws from marriage therapy, philosophy, biology, psychology to deconstruct how to embrace and sustain what makes us human in a digital age. Margaret studies human nature and monitors the cultural landscape to identify areas for creative and strategic growth. Her passion for identifying latent human needs, framing opportunities, and fueling experimentation has taken her to over 40 countries. Margaret’s career has placed her on the forefront of product innovation, organizational transformation and inclusive design.

At Microsoft, Margaret’s strategy and content is featured in the Inclusive Toolkit which was awarded by IXDA,  nominated as a FastCO World Changing Idea., and was featured in the Smithsonian – Cooper Hewitt Design Museum. As an expert in design curriculum, and service design, her courses have been attended by over 12,000 at Microsoft and are taught in universities around the world. Most recently, within NYU, MIT, and, Brown.

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.

Learning From the World Around Us

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

Much like an emotional vocabulary encourages self-awareness, an aromatic vocabulary could do the same.

The Language of Aroma

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.

An extract from Margaret Price’s article: ‘Making Sense of Scents’. Continue to Microsoft Design’s Medium for the complete literature.