For many of us, sound is an essential part of everyday living. Our day starts with a sound of alarm clock and ends with the subtle click of light switcher; sound is all around us during the day, we listen to our favorite music or receive vital information such as news reports on the radio as we drive to work.
But what about the digital products we use on a regular basis? When we describe apps and websites, we usually mean how they look, not how they sound. The design industry has always focussed more on the visual experience and less on the auditory experience. But audio can be just as important to the user experience as visuals. A proper implementation of sound can bring great value to the users, potentially making a more wholesome user experience beyond what we can see.
Sound can be a very powerful and useful tool when applied appropriately. There are a few instances when designing with audio is especially important.
Traditionally audio is used as a feedback mechanism when users interact with devices. In the most basic form, it can be an audio feedback when the user pushes a button. This mechanism is used in many everyday devices, such as mobile phones, cars, toys, and gadgets.
When a user presses a number key on an iPhone dial pad, the phone will play a sound and show the number being pressed.
There is excellent potential for sound in designing for wearables and IoT devices. Many devices have limited or even no screen, and this makes sound the best option to provide feedback for users.
It’s difficult to dismiss sound when you hear it. Sound takes users out of their context and demands immediate attention. This property can be used when designing interfaces.
Outside of the digital world, a very good example would be the “ding” of microwaves that announces when the food is ready. In the digital world, we often hear “ding” when receiving a message.
Sound is used to help walk users through critical situations or even to avoid such situations altogether. It can be a good assistant when a user takes action. For example, a sound of a parking-assist feature can tell a driver that they are getting too close to an obstacle.
Or it might remind you to change your device when the battery is almost empty. When my phone runs low on battery, it politely reminds me to charge it.
Audio notifications are particularly useful when looking at the screen is not possible or not desirable. One typical example is a voice notifications in-car navigation system. They help focus user attention on what’s really important, driving.
Speaking of wearables, sound can be used not only as a feedback but also as a notification. For example, a fitness tracker can remind users to perform daily tasks or record their blood pressure. Such notifications are subtle audio reminders that can be essential in helping people achieve their fitness goals.
Audio can also be used for branding purposes, you can apply a unique sound and music to convey a brand’s essence. Companies like Apple and Microsoft have their own branding sound that helps us identify the brand just by listening to them.
Audio can also create a more personalized product for users, helping them to build an emotional connection with a product. One good example is Apple’s Siri — the system learns its user’s name and uses it in its replies, adding a personal connection to the interaction. Audio gives user a more human touch to the experience.