Digital audio is well established in many areas. It’s a common delivery medium for products and experiences like podcasts, music, and streaming Internet radio. Digital audio is becoming a common two-way communications medium through all the varied forms of voice over IP. And as a medium for interaction with computers of various kinds, voice interfaces are rapidly developing. In fact, advances in voice recognition and voice interfaces for phone support systems are making it increasingly likely that you’ll talk to a computer when you dial a customer service line. But despite these robust applications, the integration of audio into graphic user interfaces is still a rarity.
Seen But Not Heard: Audio’s Limited Role in UX
There are good reasons for audio’s limited role in UX: First and foremost, unwanted sound can be intrusive and annoying. Rather than enhancing a user experience, audio can be a distraction and reduce our effectiveness.
In the early days of Flash, circa 1999, poor use of audio aggravated users. I was as much to blame as any other designer when I discovered the rich tools Flash provided and proceeded to use them in a way that was detrimental to the user experience—from invasive background music loops, to clicks and bleeps giving user feedback for no good reason, to zooming and swooshing and other sounds accompanying animations. Spam and advertising audio on Web sites—perhaps announcing “You’ve won a free trip” or “Take our survey and receive a gift certificate”—made users want to turn off their computer speakers altogether.
Secondly, for many UX practitioners like myself, our backgrounds, schooling, and professional training were in the areas of visual design—often, in the silent medium of print—information architecture, and interaction design, not in audio or sound design. So, while the integration of text and graphics is a familiar and common occurrence, the use of audio is unfamiliar territory and rarely considered. Most of us have not learned and honed techniques for developing effective audio for user interfaces. And sound design is not an area of expertise that we can quickly understand: It’s a field with great depth and history, coinciding with that of modern music, theater, and film. For a sound design primer for UX professionals, read “Why Is That Thing Beeping? A Sound Design Primer” on Boxes and Arrows.
Add to these factors the limited toolset that most designers have for incorporating sound into design projects, constrained bandwidth, lack of access to high-fidelity audio source material, and perhaps most importantly, no budget for a sound designer—unlike in film or TV—and it’s easy to see how audio gets relegated to second-tier status when it comes to delivering information through user interfaces.
Sounds Like Success
Despite all of these obstacles to our incorporating audio into our design solutions, there are some high-profile examples of successful sound design in UX. The most famous is AOL: An enthusiastic voice declared, “You’ve got mail!” and welcomed a generation of Internet newcomers—even spawning a movie with that title in 1998, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.
Or, more recently, Southwest Airlines has built an entire ad campaign around the importance users place on hearing the “Ding” audio cue through which the company’s discount airfare notification application lets people know a cheap flight is available. In one ad, a man lets his date—whose eyes are closed in anticipation of a kiss—fall to the floor when he hears that sound and rushes to check the message on his computer.
And there’s no end to the examples of good audio branding. Have someone start up a PC or Mac, and you can tell which computer is which—without looking—just by the distinctive sounds of their operating system jingles.