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Audio in Interaction Design
Back in 1989 William W. Gaver developed the SonicFinder at Apple Computer, Inc. Gaver was sure that the appropriate use of nonspeech sound and its full potential wasn’t discovered yet. He was convinced, that sound should be used in computers the same way as it is used in the nature: it transmits information about the sound producing elements. To emphasise his idea he developed SonicFinder, which is an auditory interface. Inside this interface he combined standard graphical feedback with auditory icons.
With this demo Gaver showed the potential of audio feedback in the digital context. Something that right now is a fundamental part of the modern app design and all big players are slowly adapting it. Sounds are used to engage us, to sharpen the products’ brand or to catch our attention. In this article I want to summarize my experiences with audio in the interaction design field.
Know your tools and limits
When we take a look at classic User Interface Design, we as a designer have a limited amount of possibilities to describe the attributes and properties of an object.
By defining the visual appearance we start describing how the object or element looks, to give the user an idea how it might behave, react and what a possible interaction might look like. Also the interactions and feedback have a huge impact how users understand and experience the object.
But still there is something missing in this rough described tool set above . For example how can you notify the user when some progress is finished and he might be navigated further? How can you get his attention back? How can you extend the emotional experience of a product? How can you make invisible things remarkable, when visuals are not the right way?
Audio in Interaction Design
Enhancing your experience with a meaningful sound design might be one of the many good solutions to start with. During university we crafted a small interactive project to demonstrate the capabilities of audio in the interaction design field.
Together with Miguel Pawlowski we thought how we can redesign the uploading process of a file. We focussed on the question how a user can work on several tasks in the mean time and is still informed about the current status of the upload without any visual feedback. Another aspect we tried to answer was how we can transfer relevant and meaningful object information in audio to communicate for example the file size of an item or the speed of the current Internet connection.
During our project research we came up with this logic, that helped us to shape and modify the audio output depending on specific situations. We parameterized the audio output and looked how relevant information can be communicated.
To experience the result just follow this link and upload a file. Don’t be worried this is a “fake” upload as no php is running on my server.
Reasons to Use Audio inside your Product
There are many other situations in which a great audio design adds a huge value to the user experience and the product’s quality.
Enhance the Atmosphere
A great sound design can be used to increase the credibility of your product, the story you want to tell or the setting you designed. Recently I heard a talk of Mike Alger, an Interaction Designer from Google, who laid out the design process of Google’s Daydream, where sound design is an important aspect to create a credible virtual enviroment.
Sound emphasises the credibility of your story.
Or just imagine if a game wouldn’t have its amazing audio, the experience would be just half as good. Sound design used wisely can create an emotional bridge between your story and the user and underline its credibility by creating a meaningful atmosphere.
What would Mac Donald’s be without its jingle ”da da da da da I’m lovin’ it” or Super Mario with his iconic sounds? With a remarkable sound design you can spread the attraction of your brand. The visual appearance is not always the first touch point with your brand.
With sound you can underline your brands characteristic and shape its identity.
Imagine a friend navigating through an app and you are hearing the brand’s specific notification sounds. In the best case scenario you immediately know what app he is using. With a strong auditive identity you can emotionally catch the user from the first moment he hears your product and transfer the brand’s values.
Sound can also be used to make processes or background tasks audible, where a visual representation might not be suited, annoying or too hard to understand. Take a quick look at your desktop to find sounds hidden in your operating system. For example your Apple Mail, when you have finished an email and clicked on “send” you usually keep working on a other tasks. A “woosh” sort of sound is used, when your email is finally sent and even when your Apple Mail window is not active you can keep track of the progress.
Use sound to keep track of invisible processes.
Another example would be the Trash, where you get a sound feedback when you empty your Trash. Depending on the current file size in the folder this might take a bit and with sound you can again keep track of the progress. This topic leads us to our last aspect.
With the help of sound you can grab the user attention when necessary. Notification sounds are everywhere. No matter if it is an alarm ringing on your smartphone, a new incoming email or a to-do reminder. Sound is used to instantly catch our attention and interrupt the current task we are focussing on for milliseconds.
Whenever your process needs attention, sound is a strong way to get some.
Use sound to add meaningful information to your product, that visual design can’t offer. Therefore you don’t have to compose the next Beethoven symphony just get the tone of voice of your product right and use it to create a more emotional and audible experience for your users.
Thanks for reading! Please give me a shoutout on Twitter if you have any questions, if you have ideas for future topics you would love to see or simply liked what you have just read.
The SonicFinder: an interface that uses auditory icons, William W. Gaver, 1989