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Designing with Sounds

Why and how do we need to approach audio in the design process

Are sounds part of the user experience? Of course they are. Do most of the UX designers include sounds in their design? No way in hell.

I’m not saying this neither a good nor a bad thing, just that it’s a subject that we often forget, or just decide not to add to our design, based on the platform we’re using and the simple fact that most users do not want to listen to the interface’s sound (as long as we’re not talking about accessibility issues).

Let’s start with an example of a sound interface — Bluetooth devices. I’ve got two pairs of Bluetooth headphones — one of them is driving me crazy and the other is amazing. Why? Because one of them connects with a sound of a woman saying “Power on!!! Connected!!!!!”, and the other one with a sound effect that reminds me of an amp turning on. I’m very happy to hear a human female voice, but this robotic “connected” sound every couple of times during the day is straight up horrible. The amp sound is so much more subtle and easy on the ears, and also feels much more connected to the whole experience.

Bluetooth devices often don’t have a GUI (Graphic User Interface), but there are a lot of GUIs that also have a sound UI. So, there comes a time when a product needs sounds and/or music, and for this option — you need to be prepared. Luckily for you, I’m here to share my insights and experiences of sounds in user experience design.

So, in order to understand sounds experience, I decided to do what makes me really uncomfortable, and that’s switching my phone from silent mode to annoying noisy ringing mode.

In order to get in the mood, I created a relaxing tune using Apple’s GarageBand.


https://soundcloud.com/omri-lachman-833599106/notification-song


The Bad

Let’s start with this — I don’t think cellphones would’ve had ringing mode if they were invented these days. When the first cellphone was invented (1973. I checked), there were no WhatsApp chat groups, no Facebook notifications, and no calendar notifications. The ringing mode is intolerable when you’re doing something else. Not to mention how annoying it is to other people sitting near you, let’s say in your office. Also, imagine my situation, sitting in an open-space with about five other people that have an iPhone and haven’t changed their default ringtone — every sound makes everyone check their phone.

I think it’s safe to say that getting a sound notification more than once every five minutes can drive a person crazy. And his/her colleagues.


The Good

It’s easy to find the problems with using sound as a part of an interface, but I worked hard on finding the jewels of sound interactions. Here are some of my favorites:

The app Strong, which helps me organize my gym exercises, has a really awesome boxing bell sound when your rest is up and it’s time for another set. This use of sound is brilliant, in my opinion, because it’s taking an element from the sports’ world (that’s meaning “start / get back to the fight”) and bringing it to the interface. This is known as a mental model, and I think it’s one the most important ingredients for a superb UX.

A more known app, Facebook’s Messenger, has a quite delicate set of sounds during a chat, that creates a very playful and fun way of chatting. For instance, when using the quick “Like” button, you can inflate it and make it bigger (which is fun even soundless). The sound it makes is a sound of an inflating balloon. Again, a very familiar sound, that made me smile when I heard it. Also in this app, when sending a heart emoji, hearts fill the screen and flying around, with a fun popping sound. It seems like Messenger’s designers know how annoying sound can be and really put a lot of thought on getting it right.


The Take-Aways

Involving a sense into an experience, specifically sound, creates a stronger connection and a more immersive interface between the user and the product. Immersion could be either very good or horribly bad. So, here are my tips and insights for designing with sound:

You better have an amazing excuse why your product can’t be whole without sounds. If you don’t really need to think about sound — don’t. Just to be clear, If you’re designing an app with push notifications, of course they will have sounds, but the default ones.Think about immersion. Sound should be a tool for the user to feel connected to what’s happening in the app. In Messenger, the inflation sound makes the people chatting feel like they’re inflating a “like” balloon; In Strong, the trainer feels inside a motivation packed montage. If one of your goals for the product is creating a better immersion — consider using sound.Continuing the last point, sound effects must be related to the product. You can use metaphors from the material world and bring it to your product (Skeuomorphism), or think about sounds that interact with your product somehow.


I think, although most of the times UX designers won’t think about the sounds in an interface, it should be a question to be asked when thinking about designing a product. Think about how sound can complete the experience you’re trying to create.

If you have any unique or interesting experiences with sound in interfaces, please let me know in the comments.

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