Digital Design’s Missing Cog — The Power of Sound

A Sound designer’s role in the context of Digital Product Design is widely understood, but seldom appreciated. They are responsible for crafting seemingly minute moments of joy — those difficult-to-articulate blips, clunks and clicks that help form a product’s personality and, by proxy, shape product and brand experience.

Though digital products are commonly confined to the boundaries of a glass rectangle, visual design, and indeed motion, can be used to finely tune the way in which a user understands them. Illusions of depth, materiality and space can transform mere pixels into genuinely inspiring and own-able experiences. Though often overlooked, Sound too has an important role to play in this approach; by sonically signposting specific interactions or ‘hero moments’ in a user-journey it can inform how a product is understood, and more importantly, how it is valued.

Of late, Sound has taken a more prominent role in the crafting of digital product experience in the form of voice interaction. Slowly but surely, we are becoming accustomed to, nay reliant on, a more aural/verbal form of interaction and navigation. Being that sonic input and output forms the foundation of these experiences, will Sound Design finally be given a more permanent seat at the table? Are we ready to build design teams and design processes that are more sympathetic to a sound-specific approach? If so, how might we best understand and integrate their skillset?

Chiming In

New relationships can feel strange to begin with; hearts are a flutter with a mix of excitement, intrigue and rampant insecurity. Similarly, opening up to new creative input can feel like a daunting prospect — in this case however, our little rendezvous with Sound Design feels more like a drink with an old friend than a blind date.

So, lets get to it. In short, a sound designer’s role in the context of digital product design often includes providing audio to signify a number of specific actions or states — from confirmation and error messaging, to moments of configuration, input and processing. However banal they may seem at first glance, these moments present excellent opportunities for us to elevate a digital experience above and beyond expectations — to craft something so rich, so evocative, that your user falls head over heals in love.

Straddling time, sound also aids the articulation of certain experiential dimensions that are more difficult to communicate visually — it can help establish a hi-fidelity narrative that can be felt across cultural and language-specific barriers. Much like the 4th generation iPod shown above (aka the ‘Click Wheel iPod’), the inclusion of a mechanical ‘click’ sound actioned on scroll pairs the digital interface with with the hardware — it helps the interaction feel precise and makes looking for and listening to music through a series of nested folders (?!) feel (dare I say it) ‘fun!’. In a split second, the object is transformed from ‘just another white box with a screen’ to 2004’s ‘must have’.

Advertisers too have, for decades, used sound to push our buttons and tickle our taste buds, calling on deep routed memories or cultural references to dupe us into buying their products (e.g. Coca Cola, Boddingtons, Hovis). Within the digital sphere sound is just as powerful, yet with the right balance of functionality, interaction & aesthetics, not only can it sell products — it can induce a sense of joy and wonderment.

In collaboration with Listen, Tinder did just that, transforming an already successful mobile app into a truly iconic experience.

Tinder by Listen

Given Sound’s capabilities then, why is it that many designers (and more importantly, stakeholders) have a general lack of understanding of or appreciation for it? In many cases it’s seen as a ‘nice to have’ rather than a priority, often tacked on at the end of a project with little opportunity to provide real value. Talking to Sound Designer & DJ Mamiko Motto, I asked for her thoughts on the matter.

“I feel like the problem really starts at universities… people who are learning creative subjects like design, film, or photography, they are not given an introductory course in Sound, or an understanding of it’s importance in other art forms… they do not understand it’s complexity.” — Mamiko Motto LINK

Mamiko has worked with a whole host of clients large and small, and while her experience varies greatly from project to project, a common thread with larger organisations is a general lack of vision or informed critique. For many, Sound is somewhat of an unknown — within the context of a project, this leads to a vague brief, significant course correction throughout and for the sound designer, endless revisions.

So if education is the problem, how might we inform those within academia and industry of Sound’s importance? In the world of agile workflow, Zeplin delivery and a never-ending list of call invites, what equates to a gentle nudge in the right direction?

Often, the key to any successful partnership [be it romantic or professional] is good communication. Having a shared vision of your goal and a language with which to discuss your ideas requires a certain level of mutual understanding. For this reason, lets spend some time getting to know the ins and outs of sound design and it’s creative process so we can write better briefs, provide more constructive feedback, and ultimately so we can create work that pushes the boundaries of our disciplines.

Tricks of The Trade

Much like visual designers, sound designers have a similarly expansive box of tools with which to create — commonly though, the majority of their work plays out in a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW); an environment in which they can sculpt and finesse their audio using digital instruments, samples and effects. DAWs come in many shapes and sizes, each with a slightly different interface or emphasis and the choice to use one over another usually boils down to ease-of-use, hardware and software compatibility and technical / community support.

Ableton Live 10 (Dark Theme)

Much like a visual designers’ palette of stroke weights, colours, type styles and grids, a sound designer has a similar set of variables with which to paint. In addition to Pitch and Volume (which could be considered constants), the sound designer can use a combination of harmony, saturation, texture and reverb (to name a few) to hit the right note. Though the palette is somewhat different, the similarities between the two creative processes are striking — both are meticulous and nuanced in their execution and iterative in their approach.

Technically, sound contends with similar complexities to those experienced in visual design too. Merely composing a piece of audio is half the battle — a sound designer also needs to contend with the device or environment in which the sound will live, much like a visual designer accounts for screen sizes and resolutions. What frequencies can the target device transmit? How loud is the audio likely to be played? These factors can guide, or limit, the instruments and samples the sound designer uses, or how they mix & master the audio once composed.

Frequency range of iPhone 7 plus speaker (device lying flat on table) — LINK

Shown above is a frequency analysis of the ‘iPhone 7 plus’ speaker component, taken while the device lays flat on it’s back. Based on this data, one could assume that using tones below 500hz (bass heavy) or above 10,000hz (treble heavy) would likely cause a disparity between the designed sound and the phone’s reproduction of it. It’s a lot like the concept of ‘Web Safe’ colour (colours that lo-fidelity screens can reproduce)—it makes sense to work with frequencies that your target device is capable of playing, rather than chopping it to fit and forfeiting a good chunk of the intended / designed experience.

So, now we have a better handle on what it is a sound designer does, and how, what’s stopping us setting these wheels in motion? Beep beep!

Stakeholder Buy-in

The medium of Sound is, by virtue of its complexities, difficult to articulate. When writing project proposals for instance, we tend to refer to Sound as an experiential component that builds on or reinforces key brand / product characteristics … but what does that really mean? They key problem here is this; if the people signing the cheques don’t know what they’re buying, how can they be expected to up budgets, build different kinds of teams and, in short, take a risk.

The traditional approach would involve cobbling together an ROI analysis relating to the application of sound in digital product. In business, numbers often speak louder than words which is why data fairs well in boardroom meetings —data makes the abstract feel tangible and, from a stakeholder’s perspective, minimises personal risk. Unfortunately, these statistics seem difficult to come by — not least because sound is an aspect of product experience that many (including us designers 😬) still don’t understand. So, if we don’t have access to the right data, and we can’t find the time or the money to conduct the necessary research, what are our options?

I posed this question to Steve Belgrave at IxDA’s sound design meet-up in November last year. His response – workshop it! Convince people of the merits of great sound design through experience, not via data heavy decks of jargon and hyperbole.

But what exactly does a workshop for sound look like? Does it involve a before and after comparison (showing a product or prototype with and then without sound)?, a device-specific showcase of frequency response or even a fully immersive sonic installation that demonstrates the emotive qualities of the medium? Whatever your approach, opening up this element of product experience to conversation and debate is a sure-fire way of having your stakeholders engage (and hopefully) invest.

Joe Hearty

Written by

Experience Design & Sound. Design Director at R/GA London.

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