Sound design & UX

As humans we are constantly experiencing sound. From opening a fridge door to the sound of birds ‘chirping’ outside, sound is all around us. Our brain always does background listening and decides when to pay attention or not. It gives us a sense of context. For example, when we hear the ‘click’ sound when we put on our seatbelts, it’s a quick confirmation that we’re good to go and we don’t need to double-check. The sound of someone’s footsteps gives us an idea of their emotional state. Are they calm? Are they in a hurry? So what we hear has a big impact on how we feel and what we do and sound helps us make sense of the things going on around us. It has a magical ability to get on our nerves, to transport us to places. 

Let’s try to understand how sound is connected to user experience and design.

Role of sound in design

Many people think that design is about what a product looks like, we rely a lot on visual modality to convey information. We also pay a lot of attention to how it works but oftentimes we forget that design is also about how a product feels and what it sounds like.

We need to understand that sound is like using a universal language that is already understood by everyone. It helps shape the experience of a product. It helps us understand interactions better. And it gives our devices a voice so they can tell us things, they can talk back to us. Now let’s quickly look at some common examples where we use interface sound. 

When a macbook loads up, it has a chime sound

which is very satisfying. It invokes an instant auditory response. It is a sound that affirms the fact that the device has started up. This sound is a good example of applying a metaphorical meaning, which is a common approach with user interface sound to amplify the meaning. Another example is the simple incoming notification sound such as commonly heard ping

in the iPhone, somewhat gently informing there are messages being received. This is the sound without any clear metaphorical meaning. It’s more of a symbolic approach to use interface sound, which is designed to create an association over time.

Let’s look at a few more examples to understand how the device is trying to communicate with us.

Gpay – wohoo! job done 👍
Slack – psstt! look here🙋
Windows XP – work is over, go home now👋
Android alarm – wake up sleepy head💤

An honorable mention– The hotline sound that informs Powerpuff girls about a threat in the city of Townsville.

I believe as UX designers, we need to think about how to bring sound into the product design process. We can start by asking ourselves questions, like, what is the essence of the product that we’re building? What emotion do we want to evoke when people hear a particular sound? How do we match the app’s aesthetics? 

Large tech giants like Facebook, Apple and Google have dedicated in-house teams that are constantly working on designing sounds for their products, giving it the same importance as other elements of design.

Check out how Jim Reekes created the most iconic sounds for Apple.

Google’s material design team has created an excellent guide on how to use sound in UI

With that being said, let’s not forget that design is so much more than how something looks, it’s about how we interact with the product. It’s about usability, it’s about how a product makes us feel. It’s a truly multi-sensory user experience. Sound design will obviously play a huge role if designed well and applied appropriately.

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

About the author – Basil Elias

Basil is a UX designer who believes in simplicity and a world full of fascination. He is a human loving introvert, values authenticity, trust and seeing the goodness in others. When he’s not working, you’ll mostly find him planning for his next voyage.