Earcons, the audio version of an icon

Non-verbal audio and sound are crucial elements of effective voice-first experience design.

Mark C. Webster
VUI Magazine
Published in
4 min readDec 19, 2017

As platforms like Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant continue to drive the growth of voice user interfaces (VUI), more and more designers are finding themselves working in a medium that is new to most of us: audio.

Understandably, the focus of the design process is usually placed on the ‘voice’ element of the project. But non-verbal audio, such as sound effects and music, can enhance the effectiveness and emotional connection that users will experience when using and interacting with your VUI.

Meet the Earcon.

Inspired by the concept of an icon (“eye-con”), earcons are short, distinct sounds that communicate an event, status, or other message to a user. While the term may be unfamiliar, earcons are already prevalent in our everyday lives.

Earcons are a common part of digital interfaces, broadcast media, and real world interactions. The Slack knock let’s us know we have a new message, the Law & Order “dun-dun” moves the show along from scene to scene, and an elevator’s ding tells us we’ve stopped on a floor.

When done right, earcons lower the cognitive load on the user, create landmarks in an audio-first medium, and create delight and connection to your brand. They are most effective when used in a few key ways.

User landmarking

Create an emotionally resonant way for the user to know where they are

The emergency broadcast noise indicates an important message that you need to listen to is soon to follow. It communicates a state of distress without saying a single word. More than that, it makes you feel distressed and stresses the seriousness of the situation, ensuring that critical information will be focused on and listened to.

Landmarking moments help users better understand where in a process they are, and lets them know they’re in the right place. The “swoosh” of an email being sent confirms your message is on it’s way, and you’ve reached the end of drafting it. Instead of speaking the words “Your email has been sent!” the earcon provides a more emotional and natural way to help the user understand what is happening.

Sonic branding

Create a memorable, emotional and powerful brand with sound

The first trademarked sound, NBC’s chimes were used to identify affiliated stations during radio broadcasts.

Using non-verbal audio and music can effectively connect a user experience with your brand, and evoke the associated emotions of your brand within the listener.

When you hear the three chimes for NBC on television, you know you’re watching NBC. Advertisements for products that contain Intel hardware use the ‘Intel Inside’ sound. McDonald’s has the “I’m lovin’ it” jingle. And Visa just spent a year making it’s very own signature sound.

We often experience branded audio with a visual accompaniment, but as voice interfaces grow in popularity, there is an increasing need to connect your brand across mediums. Whether I see a Visa commercial, use the Visa mobile app, or interact with the Visa Alexa Skill, the brand should feel the same in all three places.

Explaining Event State

Signal a task in process without unnecessary wordiness

Earcons can be used to explain to a user what is happening during a process, helping them understand what to do next (or just wait).

In visual design we often use a spinner to indicate something is happening. In an audio interface, using a ‘processing’ sound can do the same, creating a much more natural experience than, say, a voice assistant stating “Please wait while I process your request.”

From the countdown to buzzers to right & wrong answers, Jeopardy heavily incorporates non-verbal audio.

The Jeopardy countdown song does a great job of communicating the passage of a set time period, without the emotional pressure of a countdown or ticking clock. Even when not explicitly designed, non-verbal audio can often take on a life of its own while explaining event state to a user, as anyone who used a modem, with it’s signature connecting sounds, will tell you.

Confirmation and Errors

Quickly and intuitively signal success or failure of a task.

Audio is commonly used to indicate whether or not something worked as the user expected. Sometimes this happens for larger events, like when iMessage announces a message has been successfully posted, but also for much smaller events along the way, like how the ‘clicking’ of an iMessage keyboard indicates the successful strike of each letter.

Voice User Interface design is about much more than just voice. It’s about speaking and listening.

Non-verbal audio is a wide-reaching and creative resource for not only creating a better UX, but a better voice experience overall. When your team is tasked with solving UX and design issues in a voice design, avoid the trap of optimizing for voice alone, and explore how your interface can better utilize different types of audio.



Mark C. Webster
VUI Magazine

Voice UI/UX Design, Product, Developer. Founder of @Sayspring (now part of Adobe). Editor of VUI-magazine.com. Prev: Co-founded SideTour (Acq'd by @Groupon).