whistling in the dark

19 September 2007, 23:24

Recently I worked on a project about which I can tell you—typical for my industry—nothing more than that it involves a hand‐held touch screen device. Exiting stuff, no?

Anyway. More interesting was that on our multi‐disciplinary team we had a dedicated sound designer: Aaron Day from Receive‐Transmit.


First of all his scope is not just sound, but the whole user experience. That made working with Aaron one of those rare occasions where I am able to communicate at native level and work together at amazing speed.

Not having to explain all the time how user interaction actually ticks really helps. This usually only happens when working with usability folks.


Now I must admit that for the last ten years, I had always thought of sound as something that users turn off. Working with Aaron changed all that.

He promotes the concept of ‘sound that is more felt than heard.’ This involves precisely controlling the vibrator in a hand‐held device, using it like an infrasonic synthesiser.

Then combine that with a bit of audible sound on top for some sharpness. Forget about the boring buzz from your current mobile phone. Instead, think of the click you feel when pressing a key on your mobile.


When Aaron asked me to select from a list of ‘sound opportunities’ the ones that really mattered, I said: ‘in those places where we lost the keys.’

By returning in this way the tactile feedback back to touch screen controls, you are able then to really enjoy the benefits: complete freedom to optimise the controls and their layout for every situation.

Another great concept promoted by Aaron is three overall sound levels:

  1. hearing and feeling sounds: say today’s key tones;
  2. ‘silent’ but you can still feel it: audible sound is still played, but soft enough to be drowned out by ambient noise;
  3. really turned off: and now you miss the tactile feedback from level two.

Instead of the usual « I am really funny, listen to me » approach to sound, this set‑up will ensure that sound will really be a useful part of the user experience.

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at 16 November, 2010 07:39,Anonymous Anonymous commented
Admit it. You were working on one of those smart-phone fart-apps.

Trying to deny it is useless. ;P

Seriously though... really interesting to think about sound and interaction. My old film school lecturer always used to remind us like a mantra to remember that "sound is 50% of a film." Most of the good sound design (as in most good visual design imho) is subliminal. It doesn't jump out and scream at you. It just "feels good" and makes the interactions "obvious".

You pushed the big green button. It made a fart sound. It's pretty clear what the big green button is for. :) 

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