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Being Smart with Sound

Article by Henry Daw in Web Design - December 29

UI Sound has the ability to instantly draw your attention, or simply add a subtle layer of information to a UI interaction - either alerting you to something important, without the need to look at a screen, or adding a subtle moment of delight to your on-screen interaction.

Whatever the context, the implementation of sound within an interface should be undertaken with an extreme amount of care. We live in an age when our attention is demanded by countless apps and services, and sound can play a vitally important role in our experiences - not only for those directly interacting, but also for those around you.

UI sound can be applicable for any digital interface, whether it comes from a dishwasher, automobile, or mobile phone. However if we consider digital interfaces as a whole, our landscape is pretty quiet, with desktop websites almost completely mute. Desktop websites clearly pose a considerable sound design challenge, due to the context being so out of control to the designer, but across all types of digital interfaces UI sound has the potential to greatly improve user experience and compliment your brand. Drawing on my 13 years experience working as a UX/UI Sound Designer, for Nokia, for Microsoft, and now through my own company Oblique Sound, I’d like to share some thoughts for how best to apply UI sound.

Silence is Golden

Being a sound designer, you might think I would be discouraging silence. Far from it. We are surrounded by a constant soundscape, a mixing pot of natural sound and unnatural sound. We certainly shouldn’t be adding sound for the sake of it, or trying to shout louder to make ourselves heard. Unnecessary sound will quickly become an annoyance, and create a negative association with your product, app, or website. Smart sound design is not just about creating high-quality sound - it’s about sound designers working closely with UI and UX designers, knowing where sound is needed and where sound is not needed (whilst covering any explorative areas in between). If you do implement UI sounds, then make sure it’s a simple intuitive action for users to turn them off. In some cases, such as website design, it might even be optimal to have the UI sounds off by default.

Design Principles for one and all

Whatever you design, you are invariably designing an experience, and when we talk about design today, it’s far more than how pretty or ‘cool’ something looks. It’s about how we interact with the product, it’s about the usability, and it’s about how it makes us feel. Sound can have a massive impact on all these aspects, so it’s vitally important to get it right. If you follow the same design principles for every facet of your design, including sound design, you’ll ensure a coherent brand message and clear design DNA. Reflecting UX or industrial high-level design principles into sound is not, however, necessarily a literal process – it can be about how you translate those principles to a sound design perspective. Here are some examples:

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It’s all in the detail

World-class design often comes down to the finer details - every single element designed with real craft and skill. It’s no different with sound, UI sounds especially. These can be some of the most miniscule of sounds, mere milliseconds in length, for example a key click, background notification, or subtle swipe transition sound. Each sound should be crafted to perfection, and optimized for the medium and context for which it is intended. Ideally the sounds would also be tested, eking out any unwanted associations whilst ensuring optimal usability. If a particular sound fails to do the job for which it is intended, it would soon become apparent through even minimal testing. In the majority of scenarios I’d say it’s also important not to ‘over-design’, it’s about recognizing that UI sound is a key part of the usability; it’s not there to necessarily draw attention.

Brand Sound

As a slight caveat to my recommendation not to ‘over-design’, when we think about ‘Brand Sound’, there is potentially some room to elaborate with your sound design. For example, – creating that sound which has a certain amount of character and emotion, a sound that could potentially be used in marketing whilst forging a distinct recognition to your product or brand – think of the Skype start-up sound, the Samsung mobile ‘whistle’ notification tone, or even the minimal Twitter app ‘droplet’ sound. This lands us in the realm of ‘Audio Branding’, which is a huge topic in itself. What I would say is that Audio Branding has moved on from the simplistic notion of being solely about a catchy jingle – Audio Branding is about having a detailed and holistic approach to all things audio around your product or brand, everything that makes a sound. If we think about UI sounds, then think of them as being a collective voice for your product, app, or website, and very much a close-knit family of sounds that should also reflect the brand.

Brand sound is also about having a clear strategy with your brand-focused or most recognizable sounds – as your brand, design thinking and principles evolve, your sounds should evolve too, but try to build on what you have created rather than introducing completely new sounds for the sake of it. That was always the mantra at Nokia, where I had to develop sounds that had become some of the most recognizable in the world. Other high-profile brands don’t seem to follow this thinking, but I feel this to be risky, potentially alienating and annoying users who have become familiar with a particular sound.

Sound as part of the Design Process

Of course we may all have our own opinion of what constitutes good sound, but I’m confident most people will agree when they hear a bad UI sound. For example, a sound that makes you unnecessarily jump, or needlessly distracts you from an interaction. The characteristics and perceived quality of sound will always be subjective (this is often where you need to trust the expertise of a sound designer), but when we talk about UI sound especially, each sound must have a clear purpose, closely matching up to the intended functionality.

As a final thought, I’d encourage designers to make sound more inclusive within their overall creative design process. Sound design, and UI sound especially, is a real craft, and deserves to be more than an afterthought. UI, Motion, Interaction, and UX designers all work closely together, so why not include sound designers in the mix? Sound is an immensely powerful tool, and when given its rightful place in the design process can inspire the overall design, strengthen your brand, and enhance usability and user experience.