I love music, and I often needs them to raise and maintain the necessary mood to perform a specific task or action; slow soft music are good for working on general tasks with casual decision making involved; something speedy, dynamic, and hard for tasks demanding high spirit and intense concentration; cheerful and melodious ones to raise your spirit after tough debate in a meeting; and sometimes no music at all when I need to brainstorm with full attention.

However I also noticed there are different preferences when related to music, especially on hearing it during working; some people likes it, while some likes it without. That’s why on most offices, you need to use a personal music player to hear your favourite tunes, while also to avoid intentionally irritates or set your co workers into a wrong mood.

And just like in the real world environment, the same applies when we are designing UI; there are different preferences when we talk about including sound effect or even musical element into a User Interface.

The general rule is; sounds are nice to hear, and could provide positive contribution to the overall User Experience, when applied correctly.

Now lets have a look at three different considerations of using sounds in a User Interface design.

01. Using sounds as feedback and creating ambience

Sounds as feedback to the user action, or system warning, helps elevate the importance of the related events; it could also serves the purpose of creating the supporting ambience, or both.

The “ding” sound for example, which MS Windows (and majority of the other OSes) uses as indication for an error, are more pleasing to hear, while at the same time its bold enough to be noted as warning for the user; it address the importance of the event while at the same time also informing the user that it’s okay to make a mistake, which users, especially beginner users, will make often and a lot.

Imagine what will happen if we replace “ding” with police siren or fire alarm sound? Instead of expecting less mistakes to be made, we might have less users as the result. On the other hand if we just let events slides away without enough feedback to the user, they might disregard the event thus making repeated mistakes, or getting more and more clueless, and finally dislike the application for making them feels stupid.

No users like to feel stupid (even when sometimes they are ;-); this is one of the challenge that UI and UX Designers need to keep in mind firmly, especially if you are doing UI designing for applications in a market where there is a high competition, and users have both decision making privilege, and high mobility to try out different solutions.

02. Sound costs

Another thing to consider for sounds when designing UI is that most sounds are expensive, not in term of cost (while sometimes they are), but more to the application size, and size plays important part on deployment; you might get away with it for CD-based deployment, but for internet based applications, size still plays important factor due to the limitation of bandwidth and different connection quality your users might have.

The key to this issue is that there are no efficient ways yet that able to compress sound files into small enough file, to be comparable with graphical elements at the same size, in giving the same amount of impact and impression to the users. The “ding” sound in MS Windows 7 for example, requires about 7Kb file size, while the red colour with textual information practically has zero file size. So unless you really have the privilege to provide sounds as feedback, which will result in a larger application size, don’t use sounds; or use as much as possible the available resources that your current platform provides.

03. Using sounds as User Experience delivery method

The third kind of sound, while looks similar with the first; to provide feedback and ambience, stands on a whole different set of purpose; to deliver the necessary User Experience. You might encounter this kind of sounds on an entertainment based or edutainment types of application, e.g. games, and multimedia applications.

Sounds in this type of applications serves as important, if not inseparable factor, to create the overall User Experience. An FPS (First Person Shooter), or MMORPG (Multi Media Online Role Playing Games) would feel pale without the sound effects of a firing gun, or blasting rockets, or clashing swords. While it’s true that users can still play and enjoy it without the sound turned on, but you will loss the necessary User Experience that will differentiate between a hit, or “just happen to be exist” games.

Included in this last kind also is the sound-specific applications which provide most, if not all, of the output in form of sounds; we’re talking about music mixing and creation, VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) applications, Mobile phones application, or applications which users have limitation to view the display at all times, or have very limited graphical display available, e.g. cashier machine, GPS transceiver, or system and navigational application on board a jet fighter plane. (byms)

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