We live in a world where the digital products we use do so much more than just show us what we want or need to see, they also tell us, through sound.  Sound plays a crucial, and increasingly common, role in determining whether an experience is successful or not. Do it right, and you can subtly (or not so subtly) inform users or guide them to take actions in an unobtrusive way; do it wrong, and you risk sending your users fleeing from your product.

This episode of Wireframe, begins with a very familiar sound: a chip reader beeping to remind a person to retrieve their card after payment. The sound is as effective as it is annoying, and the science behind this combination is fascinating. It’s no surprise that this was an especially fun episode for Adobe Sr. Director of Design and Wireframe host Khoi Vinh and podcast producer James T. Green to collaborate on. While they come from different professional worlds, both of them use sound as a tool to tell stories and create experiences.

Listen to the episode to hear what they discovered about the importance of sound in design, and read on for a behind-the-scenes look at the science behind the sounds that shape our digital lives. Click here to read a full transcript of this episode.

Episode 10

Why aren’t more designers paying attention to sound in design?

We have moved far away from just designing how things look; now, the focus of designers is increasingly on ‘how things work,’ and that includes much more than just visuals. For Vinh, this is where sound is more important than ever, and yet UX designers often undervalue or even ignore sound as a design tool.

“It’s never before been more possible to use sound in creative ways to give people a better, clearer experience and help them accomplish their goals. I think there’s a lot of people doing interesting work in sound, and there’s just not enough attention paid to the people who are doing that work,” said Vinh.

I see an opportunity for more designers to take part in that work.

Khoi Vinh, Sr. Director of Design

Producer Green, himself an avid user of voice interfaces when he’s working out or using his smart speaker at home, echoed Vinh’s call for more designers to take sound seriously. As an audio storyteller, he’s seen the power of sound at work firsthand.

“What we uncovered in this episode only proves how much we will be depending more on audio interfaces as our screens become smaller and our computing environments become more ambient and less screen reliant. Audio is one of the most intimate senses we have, so we should take the same care we place towards pixel-perfect visual designs as we do with creating memorable audio experiences,” he said.

You don’t always need sound, but it should be considered an equivalent to other design components

In speaking with those already working in the sound design space, both Vinh and Green got insight into the care that sound designers are putting into the experiences they’re creating. They spoke to Connor Moore, founder of CMoore Sound, a sound design agency in Oakland, California. Connor offered this advice to designers: 

“Experiences are made up of three components: visuals, haptic, and sound. And you don’t always need to use all three. Because you don’t need a sound on every button that’s actually going to drive annoyance for people and it’s actually going to drive people away from using products and apps.”

Connor Moore shares his best practices for creating sounds with a human-centered design approach.

In short, use sound carefully, but consider it a key part of the equation to create successful experiences. 

Design as a language of signs, whether visual or audio

Examining Connor’s design workflow was especially revealing for Khoi. He says taping this episode further strengthened his belief that designers should and must pay close attention to how sounds are created and used in digital experiences.

“It’s the same thing with so-called visual design. It’s the same thing with certain colors, or certain fonts, or images, or even image styles. Design is like a language of signs, really. And so to be effective you need to master those signs and understand how to utilize them appropriately,” he said.

“It made a lot of sense to hear that there’s a similar rooting for sounds. In fact, that applies to the whole sound design process, and the whole process of designing these sound notifications and sound behaviors. What Connor goes through is exactly what a so-called visual designer goes through. Everything from the project brief early on, and revisions, and the research, everything.”

Connor Moore at work in his sound design studio.
Connor Moore at work in his sound design studio. Image by Cmoore Sound.

A revealing look at the science behind why we love, and hate, certain sounds

In delving into the best ways to use sound in design, Vinh and Green also got deep insight into why we react certain ways to certain sounds. Susan Rogers, a professor of music production and engineering at Berklee College of Music, shared how the construction of certain sounds creates different effects in our brains. “[If] it’s got an acoustic component of roughness, [that’s] a little bit dissonant. It’s known to be annoying; especially if it’s really loud, then it’s very very annoying,” said Susan. “Immediately you’re getting people stressed. But what if we could get people’s attention rather than stress? What if we can get them stimulated and moved to action?” 

Susan Rogers explains the principles of psychoacoustics, revealing the science
behind why we find certain sounds pleasant and other sounds unpleasant.

“Susan Rogers blew my mind with breaking down just how destructive terrible sounds can be to our minds and bodies,” said Green while reflecting on their interview. During his reporting, he also spoke to Ume Pandya of Wayfindr, which is an organization creating an open standard for audio navigation geared toward the visually impaired. Speaking with Ume made Green realize, even further, the immense importance of sound.

“It made me so much more aware about how important it is to consider audio, and how much we take it for granted when we lean on only visual experiences,” he said.

Behind Wireframe is a blog series taking you behind the scenes of Wireframe, Adobe’s design podcast, hosted by Sr. Director of Design, Khoi Vinh. Subscribe to Wireframe, and follow along every week as we uncover more design insights.