A reassuring sonic signature

Subtle feedback comes in many forms

A reassuring sonic signature

Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep

When you turn on my Trek Valencia bicycle, it makes a beeping sound, 5 times, in a short sequence that lasts approximately 1 second — Quite tricky to count this as it happens so quickly. The five beeps emit when you turn it on. When you turn it off however if you count carefully there are six beeps. Somewhere, someone decided, turning it off should add another beep to the repertoire, they also thankfully decided that there’s no melody, no change in pitch. It’s a fairly cheap/humble sounding electronic sound, proportionate with the price range of the bike which is in the midrange of the electric bike market. Without it I think the bicycle certainly wouldn’t feel as electric.

It also does another valuable thing, it gives me feedback when I forget to turn it off by shutting down automatically and emitting a six beeper, which on a psychological level is pretty perceptible and somehow sounds angrier. Over time I think this has changed my behaviour to remember to turn it off.

Then there are inadvertent / non designed sounds. When I brake hard in the rain, the disc brakes squeak. Somewhere in my head I’ve learnt the exact pitch of this squeak and know how it should sound with a good degree of familiarity. If one day it squeaks a little bit more than it should or doesn’t squeak at all. I’ll know something isn’t quite right.

Same goes for the intermittent scuff sound I hear when I’m cycling. I’m not quite sure what caused that one, but I feel this happened sometime when I dropped my bike for the third or fourth time. Again this serves as valuable feedback that something isn’t quite right, but it’s also the unique and distinct signature of this bicycle, just like a cupboard or wardrobe door that needs oiling and you recognise it from its creakiness.

Did I mention the resounding click my Masterlock cuffs make when I secure the bike? With that sound I know I haven’t turned the key all the way or it’s not engaging properly. When it clicks it gives me some reassurance that my insurance will kick in should someone decide to steal the bike.

The kickstand makes a nice clunk as well when I tuck it up. Something about how its spring is mounted onto the frame has enough give to make it reverberate enough to make a nice bassy clunk at its apex.


Such a thing as Auditory Skeuomorphism.

Auditory Skeuomorphism done right.

The bicycle example aside, sound is one of the most underappreciated facets of interface design. In particular I’m thinking of physical interfaces and appliances. Recently after watching a video about GE’s home / kitchen appliances, I was enamoured to learn that they have a lot of thought lavished on them in the sound design department of their electronic interfaces, though I’m not convinced how well they work as a matter of personal preference more than anything. They sound too electronic and chirpy for a fridge, coffee maker or microwave oven.

In a wonderful episode of the 99% invisible podcast, Jim McKee draws a comparison between the sound of the iPhone unlock screen and the sound of a vise grip opening up. Super tactile, lovely and splanchnic. There’s an approach to making virtual objects sound more mechanical and physical, I’m all for this auditory skeuomorphism in small doses. If done right, it reckon it can greatly enhance the desirability of using a device. On the other hand, sometimes it’s too much. A loud shutter sound on a compact camera can seem so out of place and ridiculous just like its superfluously leather stitched graphical skeuomorph counterparts.


Why is any of this important?

As a visual designer, audio is neither my expertise nor my playground. But I do feel acoustically sensitive and it’s not always a good thing. Do you hear the faint buzz of the transformer on fluorescent strip lights? Or that hiss on cheap headphones? Some people are equipped with the handy mental ability to filter out those noises, sadly I’m not one of them. At best I’ll tolerate the noise or get rid of it, at worst I’ll just be incredibly annoyed and be forced to put up with it.

As a way of understanding the sonic world a bit better and having a better appreciation of designed sounds. I’ve been making a more active note of sounds around me and how I relate to them.

I’ve been recording sounds for the best part of three years now using nothing more than my phone’s voice memo function. I’ve built up a fairly interesting archive of textures, movements and signatures attributed to things in the real world. This act of re-listening to sounds has had a surprising effect, its made me far more aware of the implications of sound design and has expanded my design vocabulary to include them.

The words used to describe sounds in English are very telling of how we perceive sound in very organic or physical.

Lush, Muddy, Muffled, Piercing, Puffy,Punchy, Seismic, Shrill,Sizzly, Smooth,Spacious, Steely, Sturdy, Sweet, Thick,Thin, Tight, Tinny,Transparent,Tubby, Veiled,Warm, Wet, Woolly

What’s been most surprising in all this time as illustrated by the bicycle example is how much we rely on how things sound, to offer a diagnostic insight into their function, or how much credence we give to things that sound just right in practical usage.

I wonder if all of this actually hints at an innate sense of desire to interact with physical products that give us this reassuring and friendly sonic signature. Somehow the sound gives us a more tangible and memorable connection with the device, specially if those sounds are short mechanical or organic and pleasing to the ears.

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