The Sound of Trust: Building a Sonification Strategy for Enterprise Experiences

At Salesforce, our number-one value is trust. We reflect and inspire trust through our infrastructure, our data security, our product experience. A lot of thought goes into how to convey this value visually, verbally, and experientially. But what is the sound of trust?

Introduction

It’s an odd question, but an intriguing one. We often use words and images to communicate the Salesforce brand and to support customer experiences across touchpoints. What would it mean, we asked ourselves, to use sound, to establish a “sonic brand strategy”?
 
When we first posed this question, it was a good time to think about branding. We’d just launched the Salesforce Lightning platform, complete with a revamped user experience that brought a fresh look and feel to the Salesforce product suite. And while Lightning was very well received, that didn’t stop us from investigating ways to make it even better. We decided to focus on two often-overlooked aspects of enterprise application design, kinetics, and sound. We’ll discuss kinetic UX in a future piece; in this post, we explore the benefits of a sonification strategy and look at some useful tools.

So what is sonification, exactly?

A quick stop at Wikipedia yields this definition:

Sonification is the use of non-speech audio to convey information or perceptualize data. Auditory perception has advantages in temporal, spatial, amplitude, and frequency resolution that open possibilities as an alternative or complement to visualization techniques.

Put another way, sonification is all about using sound to (1) represent data and (2) convey information. It’s used for everything from analyzing images from the Hubble telescope to creating “auditory illusions” with stripped-down MIDI files of famous songs. (Want to tumble down a very interesting internet rabbit hole? Check out these sonifications mapping income inequality, the global refugee crisis, race, and gender representation in movies, and the air quality in Beijing.)

The sound of trust

In an enterprise software context, sonification can offer user feedback, bring richness and depth to data display — and meet users’ expectations for a deep, delightful consumer-level user experience.
 
Amber Case, author of Designing With Sound (O’Reilly, 2019), asserts that in application design, sound should be given as much attention as any other aspect: “Well-designed sounds can be exceptionally effective in conveying subtle distinctions, emotion, urgency, and information without adding visual clutter.”
 
On the most practical level, sounds are a way to inform users that their intent has (or hasn’t) been carried out. Whether they’re closing a deal in Sales Cloud, activating a Marketing Cloud journey, or making an outgoing call in Service Cloud, Salesforce uses sonification to engage users in a dialogue — letting them know that they’re heard, and that our system is alive, performant, reliable, and ready to meet their needs.

Challenges of a changing product landscape

When our product design team first entered the world of beeps, boops, and bops, we were excited to dive in and start making some noise. But first we had to take stock of the challenges at hand, and what they meant for our product roadmap.
 
At Salesforce, multiple years of product integrations and acquisitions brought us not only multiple legacy visual styles but quite a bit of legacy audio design. While we’d long prioritized consistent visual integration, audio files were mostly moved over as is, without the same attention to brand consistency and alignment. And the audio files for of these projects were, more often than not, a jumble of free, open-source, and legacy sounds created over the course of many years. It was certainly time to herd some cats.
 
Another pressing factor was the growing user base of the Salesforce mobile app. While users tend to have higher expectations for audio feedback from mobile interfaces than they do from desktop apps, we couldn’t help but be curious about possibilities for cross-channel consistency — and committed to offering a consistent sound experience across channels.

Lessons from the Salesforce Lightning platform sonification project

While creating sounds for the Salesforce Lightning platform was a lot of fun, it was also a ton of work, with many surprises along the way. (The biggest one: Rallying stakeholders around a final sound library can be incredibly polarizing — sound can be even more subjective than color.) We hope that the lessons we learned along the way, and the tools we share here, can help you when as you develop your own sonification strategy.

Establish guidelines and strategies to help you frame the problem, identify short-term goals, and introduce the value of a sonification strategy to stakeholders.

Define your sonification vision

Launch your sonification initiative by establishing a shared understanding of your vision for the project. Doing this up front helps keep team members focused on the same goals, and gives you a touchstone to keep the project on track. Our project vision for the Salesforce sonification project: 
 
“Extend our sonic identity to create a selection of cross-cloud/in-app sonic moments that enhance our customers’ experience by improving affordances, user feedback, and accessibility for both desktop and mobile. Inspired by our design principles, Salesforce sonic moments should be connected, clear, dynamic, and engaging. This Sonic Lightning framework will be incorporated into our design system and supported with usage guidelines.”

Design sound in conjunction with other affordances

Affordances are object properties or contextual elements that show users how a design object is to be used. They fall into four main types: visual, kinetic, audio, and text.

Visual, kinetic, audio, and text affordances

As enterprise applications become more integrated and feature rich, UX designers run the risk of triggering information overload. A sonification strategy can alleviate some of the information “noise,” providing alternate or supporting affordances for wayfinding and workflow management. This is especially useful for users, such as customer support personnel, who must multitask.

Build your Sonic Brand

A sonic brand is a collection of unique, ownable, and sustainable audio assets used consistently across a brand’s touchpoints to enhance the customer experience.
 
Whether you’re exploring the possibilities or revisiting an existing sonification strategy, remember that everything you do affects the overall sonic brand — and should always serve overall brand alignment. 
 
When developing sound assets, don’t be tempted to reinvent the wheel. Are any other teams in your organization creating customer experiences that use, or could benefit from, a common sonic brand? Do you have a call center? Does your marketing department create product demo videos? What sounds do existing mobile apps use? Aligning your sonification strategy across contexts and channels makes all of your products easier to use, and signals to users that you respect their time and attention.

Align your sonification strategy across contexts and channels

Consider all of these channels as you build your sonic brand:

  • Applications: Enhance how customers experience your products and services by improving affordances, system feedback, and accessibility across your portfolio of applications.
  • Media: Videos, tutorials, online seminars, live streaming, call centers … customers (and prospects!) experience your brand through a wide range of channels and associated media. Does your application align?
  • Environments: Extend your brand experience in ways that bring your spaces to life. Lobbies, elevators, trade shows, and mindfulness zones can all benefit from a sound strategy that enhances their use and supports a consistent and trustworthy sonic brand.

Catalog your Sounds with an Intent Spectrum

Map and review your application’s sonic landscape with an intent spectrum. This 2x2 chart pinpoints the frequency and complexity of each in-app sound, creating an overall picture of your sound library.

Sample intent spectrum for an enterprise application

In the intent spectrum above, the Y-axis represents the frequency of an audio trigger, from common system feedback like success toasts and notifications to more rare error alerts and celebratory moments. 
 
The X-axis shows sound complexity. Generally, the more frequent a trigger, the shorter and simpler it's sound. The more complex a sound, the more sparingly it should occur; reserve the most complex sounds for rewards and critical notifications.
 
Ideally, your intent spectrum will reveal a sweet spot — a diagonal band running from top left to bottom right. If a sound sits far outside this band, you may want to reconsider its intent, and possibly simplify or enhance its characteristics.

Soundboard demonstration.

When designing sounds, consider those that echo real-world experiences. For example, real-world sounds that are far away or obscured by objects have a muffled and diminished quality, while those in the immediate vicinity are clearer. If your application requires a user to multitask across layers or pages, and an event occurs on a page or layer not in the forefront (e.g., a record update on a hidden tab or an incoming message in a collapsed chat widget), give its sound distance and depth that reflect its distance from the user.

Enforce consistency with Shared Gestures

A shared gesture is a sonic moment that represents a common, repeatable, or matching interaction across features, interactions, and use cases. Shared gestures function much like standardized icons, fonts, and colors in a design library.

The drag-and-drop gesture, for example, is used across multiple Salesforce products. Tokenizing standard sounds for common shared gestures and alerts (including error alerts, success messages, and other notifications makes your design system more scalable while creating a consistent, thoughtful user experience.

Shared drag-and-drop gesture in three different Salesforce products

A starter set of design guidelines

Ten guidelines for sonification in enterprise applications:

  • Sounds should be concise, non-intrusive, and with clear meaning.
  • A sound’s intensity should match the urgency of the message it conveys.
  • Take cultural implications into account.
  • Coordinate sounds with visual cues, and with other input such as animation, haptic feedback, and choreography.
  • To speed user adoption, consider using pre-existing sound relationships.
  • Tailor audio cues to users’ expected skill level.
  • Consider users’ typical environment variables and device types.
  • Provide controls to enable or disable audio notifications.
  • Less is often more. Aim to enhance the user experience; don’t interfere with it or offer unnecessary distractions.
  • Take into account typical behaviors including average daily use. Don’t overload users; keep sounds associated with repetitive tasks lightweight and simple, with clear meaning.

Now go forth and make some noise

A sonification strategy and audio design system can bring multiple benefits to your user experience. Sound can make user interactions clearer, add an informational affordance that boosts usability and accessibility, and boost engagement by grabbing users’ attention. Used judiciously, it can enhance the user experience, adding fun and delight to an application. And a thoughtful sonification strategy can support brand awareness both within and beyond your application.

Design architect Adam Doti shares the importance of audio affordances with Salesforce co-founder Parker Harris.

Get hands-on with Trailhead.com

Are you a Salesforce Admin or Developer? Take your sound passion to the next level with Trailhead’s hands-on project “Add Sound Effects to Your Salesforce Org”. In this module, you will use a Lightning Web Component to play a fun sound when a big deal closes in Salesforce. Don’t worry, you don't need to be a Salesforce customer. Trailhead provides you playground orgs to experiment in!

Take the Trailhead module to add sound to your org!

Special thanks to Audrey Arbeeny and the team at Audiobrain, Jason Kriese, Justin Maguire, and Jonathon Newby! A very extra special thanks to sound engineer extraordinaire Amy Lee for all your help creating the soundboard, timing system, and overall advisor.

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