An overlooked dimension?

I've always had a sneaking concern that sound has been a much overlooked topic in interaction design, so I was delighted to find Max Lord's excellent article Why Is That Thing Beeping? A Sound Design Primeron Boxes and Arrows.

In my experience, sounds either really help or really hinder a user experience; there doesn't seem to be much middle ground. Some examples of the former:

  • Sounds that tie in closely with product branding. Could you draw me Intel's logo? No? Could you hum me their jingle?

  • Catchy sounds used in entertainment (think Family Fortunes' famous 'eh-uh' wrong answer sound, or Countdown's time out jingle)

  • Extremely simple reinforcement sounds for important transactions (pedestrian crossings, ATM beeps).

But when sounds fail, they serve only to annoy:

  • The Windows startup chime

  • Websites that launch into unexpected and unwelcome music (the one guaranteed way to ensure your user leaves in under 5 seconds)

  • Most polyphonic ringtones.

The term 'information overload' usually refers primarily to the visual and cognitive burden information poses, but I suspect we run the risk of sonic information overload too without careful controls. I'll admit use my iPod as a way to wrest back control of one of my senses - perhaps a mild rebellion against the busy urban environment in which I live. I suppose it's the aural equivalent of pretending to read a newspaper on the Tube to avoid awkward eye contact.

I do find myself wondering just what future there is for sound design in interaction design, however. There's no doubt it's come a long way. Think back to the advent of the CD-Rom - every 'multimedia' project demanded a piano soundtrack, even if there was absolutely no benefit to the user experience (I have slightly bitter memories of being marked down heavily for omitting this in a University assignment). Luckily, this sort of use of sound now seems as dated as the 'information superhighway'.

The problem I have is that sound is still a medium that interrupts more than just the intended recipient. In a solo environment this isn't an issue, but in a quiet office it can be highly disruptive and embarrassing. I'm sure we've all wanted to throw ringing mobiles out of the window at times. Maybe the answer lies with use of other senses? I'm finding myself increasingly interested by the concept of haptic (touch-related) methods of interaction and response, which provide a similar alert without the need to disturb others. I'll freely admit it's not a field I know much about, so I'll endeavour to report back once I've explored it a little.
Watch this space... or should that be listen out for more?

Cennydd Bowles