Designing Interfaces with Sound — I

Ting, Ping, Beep, Tick-Tick-Tick, Swishhhhh

Sound is everywhere. We interact with it each moment of our lives to enrich our existence and engage with the surroundings. Sounds go beyond our spoken language, and even beyond the most poetic definition of music.

Sounds go beyond our spoken language.

From the first founders of Earth to the existing generations. Our ancestors and organisms from which we have evolved and organisms before them have been using sound as not just as a mode of communication, but for faster means of scanning the surroundings for survival. Dissimilar from the capabilities of our vision, which can be barred by physical objects that appear in its line-of-sight, sound waves have the ability to bypass everything and can travel multiple directions simultaneously.

We have moved far away from what we were built for, emerged and accustomed ourselves to new ways of recording information using sound. Hence, sounds have been exploited as a feedback mechanism, and sometimes in conjunction with our senses: Haptic, Touch, and Visual.

And like any other technology, sound too needs to be properly designed whether it is used as an aid to another technology or individually. We all know how ill-designed systems, can crank us nuts with highly distracting and annoying sound. When working with sound, it doesn’t get any easy — we can’t just shut our ears and move on. Sound always surrounds us and it’s inevitable to bar them and put attention to work.

With our urban environments becoming continuously complex with the advancement of technology, there is an imperative need for personalized immersive experiences for users using their devices.

If sound is implemented well it can effectively communicate important information to users. The utilization can either be in combination with the visuals or even as a proxy for it

Any good experience is one that stimulates all our senses.

Consider a pizza. A stuffed cheesy chicken pizza. Notice:

  • How it feels when you pick up one slice of it?- is it crunchy? is it soft? hard crust? Hot or Cold?
  • How many vegetables have been used? 5? 8? 2?
  • How does it look on your plate? Worth an Instagram?
  • How does it smell?
  • and, how does the pizza taste? I bet it’s yummy.

Food gets into all your senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch.

Why Sound?

The reasons for us to focus on sound are:

- Most of our devices (pre-dominantly smartphone and laptops) trigger only 2 of our senses: sight and hearing. We may elaborate on the aesthetics and the vibratory output, but these feelings are very minute as compared to sight and hearing.

- This reasoning is welded to the first: if there’s a ranking in our senses: sight is undoubtedly at the top of the pyramid but I would considerably say that hearing is second.

- Ultimately, with a steady pace in the world of computer science, the latest standards for sound compression, advancements in low-bandwidth transmission, and low charges of modern audio production, all have made it possible for us to enhance our experiences with delightful sounds and music, without ever having to raise a concern about the practicality of it.

Sound as Brand Identity

A product, sound, and brand are old comrades, of course. From television advertisements and radio jingles to the legendary TVC of Nirma washing powder — audio has always played an important part in communicating brand values. Whether it’s Apple Mac’s start-up Chime, Intel’s iconic 4 note ads, Skype’s startup sound, etc — it’s these moments that ingrain the company logo in the minds of their audiences.

Sounds help establish the brand identity in a manner that’s arguably as powerful as the visual.

New Era

For the overwhelming majority of human existence, sound has been an integral part of technology. As our gears and machines have taken a shift from loud combustion engines to motors in electric cars have become increasingly smart, they’ve also become ever more silent in operation — and many of those habitual cues and signals have disappeared.

Instead, we rely on noises that have been selected or created to give a specific effect. Electric cars with silent motors ridicule the noisy engines of fossil-powered vehicles, for example, because a motor gives bypassers surprisingly complex warnings — how near a car is, how fast it’s going, and even how many horsepowers it must be.

While physical keyboards single out silent rubber buttons and butterfly mechanisms in the new MacBooks instead of snappy mechanical springs, we invested time and energy into creating sounds for the digital keyboards for our devices.

Designing with Sound

If we can think of designing with nature’s golden ratio. Then why can’t we design with sound?

Use of sound in the designing of applications for digital devices has been trimmed to revolve around fact or feedback based communication. From confirmation, success, and error based sounds that guide users through a job or request — the challenge is to develop a set of sounds that support the user whilst awakening a deeper understanding about the product and its brand.

In Interaction Design

Sound is often overlooked and under appreciated in digital products when it has the ability to greatly enhance the experience of these products.

Just as micro-animations and continuous transitions supplement the visual designs, and haptics provide additional feedback to the users’ interaction, sounds have the capacity to act and turn the interface into an even more wholesome experience.

This happens because, like animations, sounds trigger the orienting Response, a mechanism that makes us pay attention to the slightest of change in our surroundings and that’s the reason why it’s predominantly used as an alert mechanism. On the contrary, sound also has a surprise element of providing a delightful on-screen moment.

A great user interaction is the one, which includes a feedback reaction for every action a user performs, notify the entering of the action. For example, pressing a key on coffee machine plays a sound, acknowledging the request.

Sound is really mutual with its environment and being able to stimulate our emotions effectively can occur in excitement or energy drain depending on the produced vibrations. For example the vibrations of ‘OM’ provide us with a calm headspace and builds up energy, while sounds which are used in games are mindfuly crafted to create a sense of excitement and motivation, which are ways to gamify the experience.

Interaction designers in information technology as well as in transportation industry research a lot on what kind of sounds to play whenever a user interacts with their product. For example, the sound made by a car door when shut can completely alter the experience of the user with the car, or the engine noise.

Timing is very important with sound. The same sound can mean joy at a particular time, while it can also mean alarm at some other moment. The reason this happens is that the sound serves as a very good feedback mechanism for registering and confirming our data.

Train your Thoughts

Every place where we are at, we try to create a mental map (an idea of thought) of our environment, a broader picture in our heads, and the sounds originating from elements help in establishing the sense urgency or calm.

For example, if you know that there is a police station near where you are living, hearing an emergency alarm might not be as surprising as to a person who lives a distance away from the station. In another universe, for a person who lives in the mountains, far from any sort of disturbance, hearing even the slightest of sounds can be breathtaking because according to his knowledge there is no one around. Therefore, our mind adapts to the sounds of the environment and is unable to trace back the feedback sound to its source; which is why it is important to consider the timing as well as the context of the sound, which your product might be generating, and how accustomed the user is with that particular sound.

This is a 2-part series on how our interaction with devices has changed over time and the underprized power of sound in developing these interfaces.

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