August 1, 2019

Still Sounds About Right—The Need for Audio Feedback from Devices


If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Put another way, if a phone receives a call and the phone is set to silent, does it make an action? Of course it does—whether we can hear it or not. Device sounds, although we still might not pay them much attention, have been giving us the feedback we need for decades, even as tech becomes less and less mechanical.

Thomas McMullan spoke with developers and musicians to understand how the sounds of our machines (those that sound to represent activity) evolved and where they’re going.


  • Jim Reekes: Behind some of Apple’s most iconic audio effects. Used a recording of his old camera for the screenshot sound on Macs. The association between that sound and cameras persists today—even for people who only use digital ones.
  • Ken Kato: Composed the Windows 98 theme, sound designer for Halo 4 with 343 Industries, and current audio director for the VR studio Drifter Entertainment.
  • Steve Milton: Co-founder of Listen, a “sensory experience” company responsible for the sound design of apps including Skype and Tinder.
  • Becoming Real: London-based electronic musician.
  • Lindsay Corstorphine: Music facilitator and band member of Sauna Youth.

Their Quotes

  • Jim Reekes: “Audio is still ignored for the most part. Part of the problem is how good design is invisible.”
  • Ken Kato: “When I made (the Windows 98 bootup sound), Microsoft started out with about 20 sound designers, and there was a little contest, like a league competition. We went up against each other making sounds, and then a committee would choose which sound they liked.”
  • Steve Milton: “The biggest and most obvious is the shift away from skeuomorphic sound. Early sounds would attempt to mimic or sample the real world — quacks, pianos, trash, etc. But as the visual design moved away from skeuomorphism, we also start to hear more abstract expressions, sonically.”
  • Becoming Real: “Machines have become quieter, smaller, less noticeable, as the importance isn’t so much what the technology looks like — it’s how it can perform for us.”
  • Lindsay Corstorphine: “Recently, I’d say sound design has become less ostentatious and more functional, but with a hint of sentimentality for a mechanical past.”

Why this matters

In a previous analysis on usability, we referenced Jakob Nielsen’s 10 Usability Heuristics for Interface design, which were created in 1994 but remain relevant to this day. The first on the list is “visibility of system status” where the system gives users feedback on what is going on. Following up after that is “match between system and the real world,” which means, “The system should speak the users’ language, with words, phrases, and concepts familiar to the user, rather than system-oriented terms. Follow real-world conventions, making information appear in a natural and logical order.”

We can apply this principle to why we still need very tangible signs from machines that, as they get more advanced, produce fewer and fewer sounds when they function. Custom tones help us differentiate messages from different contacts.

Haptic feedback, like vibrations, can do the same or simply lets us know when we fail to unlock our phone with our fingerprints. These are the machine-made “words” that we require to understand for context, but rather than come up with completely original sounds or icons it can be easier to re-use designs that draw existing associations developed through time. We don’t use floppy disks anymore, but the image is often used as the icon for the ‘save’ button in apps and the one-dot-to-two-dot ‘share’ icon has now joined that collective memory.

In the same way, we associate non-verbal sounds like the shutter with photo taking, rapid beeping with timers or alarms, honking with cars, and the sad trombone with failure or disappointment. For now, the associations persist because we still have a “match between system and the real world.”

What sounds right now might not tomorrow

Reekes raises an interesting premise of customizing the sounds of our silent electric cars of the future much like we would the ringtone. As Milton said, the sounds being produced are no longer based on real-world counterparts but are created from zeroes in a digital space.

As the sonic signature of machines changes as their mechanical parts decrease, we might see a greater need for new sounds to stand in and give feedback, and users and sound designers will become less bound by a longing for the past and any obligation to stick to history. We might end up eventually retiring the iconic shutter sound and only come to recognize some new never-before-heard tone instead.

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