UX Sound Design : Curating Our Soundscapes

Sound has always been a part of the product experience. Whether it be the ringing of a telephone or the dial on an old telephone, sound has served a functional purpose of grabbing a users attention or reinforcing an action. As technology has advanced, engineers have been able to get rid of most mechanical noise made by products and the alerts and sounds that were once purely functional are now more curated and customized to the product or brand. What was once a really loud buzzer to signal that your laundry was dry can now be a much softer sound that won’t  cause stress or annoyance. The ringing of phones and alarms once sounded the same and tended to be extremely loud and obnoxious for their purely functional purpose, but now can be customized to the user or the brand. Even car engine sounds are changing with the mass adoption of EV’s. As EV’s become more prevalent, the soundscape around traffic is changing and has the opportunity to become more unique and potentially/hopefully quieter. Across all of these different products, apps and experiences with AR, VR or XR provide an opportunity to curate our soundscapes in a more intentional way. 

Over the last several years, the interest and demand of using sound as a more strategic component to branding has increased dramatically. In the past, sound branding was just seen in the form of the sonic logo. Today, brands are starting to understand the value of using sound branding in the form of ux sound for their products, apps and experiences. As this growth in demand is happening, I’ve become more and more aware of how important it is for sound to be used judiciously in these experiences. As new products, apps and experiences enter the marketplace, the natural conclusion is to think that our soundscapes will get dramatically louder. This could very well prove to be true if not approached correctly and this is why it is more important now than ever for brands to be thinking strategically about curating the sound for these experiences. So, what should designers be considering in order to create more effective sound experiences that won’t add to the noise? 

Less is Often More

People are very sensitive to sound — the last thing you want to do in a product experience is overuse sound. This tends to create an annoying user experience that increases listener fatigue and actually makes the experience less effective. Using sound in products needs to be a very strategic process where guardrails are set for best practices that help to guide how, when and where sound will be used. Sound is the spice in the mix that should add a layer of depth, not call too much attention to itself.

Brand Opportunity

Creating sound for products, apps and experiences is all about striking a balance between enhancing functionality while boosting brand awareness. Get a strong understanding of the brand and how it wants to express itself while also researching the products and brands in the competitive market to develop ideas on how you can differentiate and stand out. What are the brand or design principles? What is the roadmap for future products and how can you harmonize the experiences? Try to find key moments that you can lean on in order to align the visual and sound experience to enhance the overall brand narrative.

Boost Accessibility

Sound can be added as a tool in the larger multi modal toolkit to support visuals and haptics in a user experience. Adding sound that is rooted in psychoacoustics and music theory will help in creating a more informative and functional experience to a range of users. The key with this is to not overuse sound, but use sparingly alongside visual or haptic cues to not cause fatigue or confusion.

Spectrum of Design

Different interactions in a user experience require different types of attention and should be structured and designed that way. In the automotive space, a seatbelt chime is a very different type of alert than a forward collision warning or a welcome sound. These should all be designed specific to the intent of the communication on a spectrum that is specifically created for the experience being designed.

Build in Flexibility

When creating sound for a product, the team should consider how the sound experience will translate outside of this specific context. Hopefully, the brand will be able to use some of these sounds for marketing purposes for television and digital content. If this is the case, designers should have ideas on how ux sounds can be more dynamic and robust for marketing efforts. Some brands have multiple products with different speakers and contexts that sounds need to scale to – Designers and brands need to consider those playback systems and ask the question of how can they maintain a quality and cohesion across multiple touchpoints and products.

Understand the Capabilities

Every product experience is unique with different environments they live in and different speakers or playback systems. It’s very important to understand the context of the environment and speaker so you can design specifically for the limitations. Get a speaker spec from the brand as soon as possible and make sure to begin design with those frequencies as a guide. Lastly, try to get your design into a build of the product or app early in the design process to see how things are working on the device so you can get ahead of iterating for real life experience.

Sonic Testing

There are typically many stakeholders involved in the design process and getting them on board with the creative concepts is obviously an important part of the process, but you should also consider testing with a third party to get an objective review of how sounds are being perceived at scale. Having a larger test group of varying demographics can help to show how the sounds are communicating certain brand principles while also ensuring that the sounds are communicating the correct intent from a functionality perspective.