3 Big Reasons Why UX Designers Should Not Ignore Sound
Updated: Oct 27, 2021
Sound has been proven to boost brand recall by as much as 96%.
User experience (UX) is about how things work. But it’s not all about visuals and functionality. For a number of reasons, sound is an important part of UX, yet many designers still ignore—or at the very least, underutilize—it. As we’ve pointed out in previous blog posts and on our social media pages, sound is recalled much more readily than visuals are, and that’s a function of the types of memory that store sound and visuals in our human brains. Read on to learn 3 big reasons why UX designers should not ignore sound.
Reason #1: Echoic Memory (Sound) Lasts Longer than Iconic Memory (Visuals)
When we humans hear sound, our brains store it in what is known as echoic memory, which lasts 2 to 4 seconds. By contrast, our brains store visuals in iconic memory, which lasts less than a half second. If you want to boost recall of your visuals, pair them with appropriate music and sound. (Think Visa’s “Tap and Pay” two-note sonic brand or Nintendo’s classic game sounds.)
Reason #2: Over Time, Sound Begins to Serve as Cues and Instructions
What happens when someone calls your cell phone? It makes a particular sound. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a stock sound that came with your phone or a ringtone you purchased. Either way, the sound you chose serves as a signal to you that someone is trying to call you. When you receive a text message, your phone makes a sound to verify its receipt. You know what your phone is telling you because you instantly recognize the sound.
Eventually, when your brain has repeatedly been exposed to and recalled sound, it moves up the memory hierarchy to long-term memory—the stage in which information is stored indefinitely. Short-term memory typically lasts for only about 18 to 30 seconds but can sometimes last for several hours, whereas long-term memory lasts anywhere from hours to decades.
Sound can be applied to interactions by linking an action, or a state change, to an audio cue. These sounds are called earcons, and they can represent information, actions or events. Their sound can reinforce both the meaning of an interaction and a product’s aesthetic, emotion, and personality.
Reason #3: Our Human Brains are Wired for Sound Even Before Birth
We humans are literally wired for sound. The first sound we learn is the sound of our mother’s voice. It’s the reason why babies know who their mother is from the moment of their birth. As we get older, we recognize other sounds—the sound of an alarm clock, the sound of our car alarm, the sound of a dentist’s drill. Those sounds tell us where we are, what we’re doing and even what the next step is. Sound aids in delivering instructions, warnings and cues, and can even deliver messages of success and failure. As such, it makes perfect sense to build them into customer and user experiences.
Every interaction, achievement unlocked, and notification can be improved with sound effects. They can solidify the mood of the experience, and communicate the detail more quickly to a user. In other words, sounds can help convey that something was done—an additional way to acknowledge the user’s actions. A fun way to proclaim, “Yes, your input was accepted.”
In some cases, sounds can help highlight something in a visually-packed landscape. In time-sensitive applications, they can communicate something faster than visuals alone can. Moreover, audio cues and speech recognition can also be used to create a better experience for those with disabilities or learning difficulties.
When to Not Use Sound Sound in UI
Building silence into a user interface (UI) design is just as important as knowing when to apply sound. At the most basic level, UI is the series of screens, pages and visual elements—like buttons and icons—that enable a person to interact with a product or service. In many instances, sound isn’t needed and it can actually detract from user focus and comfort. Similar to using negative space in visual design, silence creates a space for other elements to receive focus.
For example, sound isn’t usually suitable for:
UIs that require privacy or discretion
Users who have requested no interruptions
Actions that are performed frequently
In any context, sound should elevate the visual experience rather than detract from it.
Sound in UX
User experience (UX) is about the experience a user has with a product or service. Primary UX sounds are generated by an operating system (or device) to provide user feedback. They can add sound to any interaction, such as:
Confirming a user’s direct action
They should be in harmony with a product’s sound aesthetic, while remaining simple and understated.