Black Mercury

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Musings on UI Sounds

Yesterday we stumbled onto an interesting question: why have our interactive designs gotten so quiet lately? While there are certainly tons of apps out there that use sounds effectively to enhance the user experience, we realized that overall, UIs appear to be getting quieter. Why? 

In mulling over the trends, we thought about how we’ve considered UI sounds over the years. Going waaaaay back, when we were designing high fidelity UIs for set-top boxes, sounds were used to punctuate virtually every user input. Giving the user feedback as they operated a squishy infrared remote control was critical (which was also borne out in usability tests). 

Later, when we were designing “broadband-optimized user experience prototypes” for AOL a decade ago, we frequently included sounds to enhance the experience. Adding clicks, snaps, blings, and swooshes to improve usability and vibrancy to the interface was often the norm, though it wasn’t unusual for these sounds to get dropped when the product took the trip from “prototype” to “launch”. Not unlike the way 22-inch wheels or color-keyed streamlined side mirrors get dropped somewhere along the way as a car devolves from “show car” to “showroom ready”. Not sure if you remember, but ten years ago there were some incredibly cool web sites that used sound feedback very elegantly (Japanese web designers, in particular, were making some incredible audio-rich UIs). 

But fast forward a decade, and it seems like overall there are fewer sites that use sounds to enrich or punctuate the UI. While there are still outliers like the recently launched, over-the-top Price Waterhouse Coopers self promotion site, web sites in general seem to have quieted down. We think that’s primarily a result of the “noise level” going up elsewhere. There’s so much video, music, and other “consumable audio” around the web, that UI-enhancing audio just gets drowned out. When people still had their Internet Training Wheels on, audio-enhanced UIs really did help people get around. They were also seen as novel. But now that the Training Wheels are off, UI sound enhancements on the web just aren’t as necessary, or even desirable. 

Interestingly, this general trend appears to be holding true for apps. While the iPhone set an awesome benchmark for the use of audio in UI (see Jordan Kolasinski’s great taxonomic overview of iPhone’s UI sounds), it seems like things are quieting down there, too (games not withstanding). If iOS 1.0 had the “swipe to delete” function, I can imagine that it may have had a bit of audio feedback to underscore the action. Now, of course, it’s silent. Maybe the general trend towards flat design, simplicity, and “quieting down the mobile UI” applies equally to the use of UI sounds. 

When it comes to designing apps, we still believe there’s an important place for the assiduous use of UI sounds to enhance the user experience. In fact, we wish we’d had the opportunity to include sounds in some of our clients’ products in the last few years, but frequently sound enhancements are de-prioritized as a “nice to have if there’s time”. There are some modern and awesome UI sound libraries out there, and we can’t wait to get the chance to apply them effectively to future products.

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