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Hearing Is Believing: Make It Sound As Good As It Feels

By Claudia Bernett

—now, I say, there came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I knew that sound well too. It was the beating of the old man's heart.

With the lights off and murder in the air, sound is the story in Edgar Allen Poe s classic The Tell-Tale Heart; groans, shrieks, and heartbeats paint a picture of sinister madness. 162 years after that story s publication, it is still sound that tells the story. It shapes how we interact in, feel about, and respond to our lit-up, digital world. As a result, aural aspects are key to establishing the identity, character, and emotional resonance of products. Yet sound too often remains a secondary consideration for designers, overshadowed by visual and tactile concerns. Unless sound is more fully understood and integrated into the design process, we risk ignoring its tremendous potential to create rich and meaningful user experiences.

Our brain pieces together a picture of the world from information delivered by our five senses. Sound provides an array of crucial information that helps us understand what we are seeing and experiencing, as well as what we cannot see. Reverberations from a round of applause, for example, tell us about the size and quality of space and materials, and about how the sound was made. The standing ovation of classical music fans produces a rich aural texture that describes the mid-sized, wood-paneled hall and the adult audience. The applause at a magic show in a grammar school cafeteria, on the other hand, fills the air with the tinny echo of little handclaps. Eyes closed, we still see both scenes clearly.

Sound also impacts how we feel. It carries emotional weight conditioned by lifetime experience and technical history. The original telephones rang when an electrical current triggered the tapping of a tiny bell—a sound that remains a figurative icon of the telephone call, and holds a visceral quality that elicits an emotional response. Whether it brings back the memory of a grandmother s kitchen, or simply recalls a clip from a favorite film, the ring sparks emotions in us conditioned by both its history and our own experience.

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Today, our products are digital, portable, and pervasive. We live with them and around them, absorbing information and filtering noise at the periphery of our aural focus. We continually communicate with the devices in our lives, processing direct and ambient sounds in order to glean important information about the world. My mouse and I communicate, for example. Containing a Piezo speaker, Apple s Mighty Mouse emits subtle ticks and clicks when it is squeezed or pressed; these sounds augment the tactility of the mouse itself, and my interaction with it. They also integrate with and further define the product identity.


Music, for instance, has long been important in defining product identity. Microsoft wisely retained Brian Eno to create the 3 1/4 second long Windows startup piece, a composition Eno later referred to as a tiny little jewel. And in his recent book Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things, Donald Norman cites the implementation of sound in Richard Sapper s kettle with singing whistle by Alessi— it creates a chord of e and b when the water boils. Our history of musical literacy has conditioned us to an appreciation of musicality in sound. Its sophisticated integration into the design of products infuses the user experience with dimensionality and pleasure, and amplifies the product s emotional resonance.

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Emotional resonance shapes both product and user identity; we wear the sounds of our products like audible badges. Our mobile phones, music players, and video games are as integral to our sense of self-expression as our clothes and hairstyles. A phone owner s ring tone selection, for example, is at once identifier and descriptor it tells us who the owner is and what she or he is like. The designers of the Hiptop (aka Sidekick), understanding this, enable users to roll their own ring tones by simply emailing sound clips in any format to the device. As the constraints of the medium shrink, the complexity of our audible identities will grow. Imagine spaces demarcated mostly by sound; we only hear the size, quality, and borders of rooms. The devices we carry or wear transmit history, preferences, and location information—even sound itself—shaping and shifting the aural environment. Future products that accommodate the need to express ourselves through sound will strike the deepest chord.

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The immediacy of the visual obscures the power of sound, as well as the necessary role of sound in design. Yet sound is significant in shaping user experience, impacting a user s perception of a product. Without more careful consideration of sound as part of the design process, our experience with digital devices will suffer. More importantly, we will fail to design for a future where communication among people and devices is seamless, even transparent. After all, it isn t your imagination— It is the beating of his hideous heart!

Claudia Bernett is a Senior Design Analyst in frog s New York studio.

The frog Design Mind column appears every Monday on Gizmodo. Read more frog Design Mind.