Continually refining the brand voice & sound across a vast product ecosystem
As one of the world’s largest technology companies with products and platforms across many verticals, Microsoft touches well over a billion consumers. From Windows, Office, and Skype, to Xbox and Mixer, Microsoft connects with people at work, home, and play — the potential sonic touchpoints are vast. The challenge is to create a holistic sound identity that represents the brand personality overall while allowing for enough flexibility to adapt to all potential use cases.
Going back to Brian Eno’s iconic Windows 95 startup chime, Microsoft has been paying attention to the emotional potential of product sounds to help communicate a consistent brand voice and message. But as the portfolio of products has grown, discreet sounds like an OS startup or app notification cannot be developed without consideration for a broader sound identity. Sound for Microsoft comes to life across not only product sounds and UX, but also communications, ads, experiences, and partnerships to reinforce their distinct brand position within the technology landscape.
“We use sound to shape the rhythm and emotional texture of the user experience. Sound is an element that’s integrated with other sensory experiences like touch, texture and movement. We’re shifting the way we think about sound design at Microsoft, and hopefully the industry at large. Our goal is to help orchestrate harmony across devices and senses.” — Matthew Bennett, Head of Sound + Sensory Design, Microsoft (2)
Microsoft is noted for having the quietest room on Earth, an anechoic chamber that was built to test sounds emitted by products in development. (3) Whether they’re evaluating the hum produced by a vibrating circuit board, how material choices determine the loudness of keyboard tapping, or creating a convincing 3D sound experience for an augmented reality headset, the engineering aspects of sound are constantly being evaluated and optimized. But in recent years, Microsoft has also turned a discerning ear to how the sounds emitted by the devices can also be strategically designed for brand voice coherence and consistency.
The HoloLens mixed reality headset, for example, uses sound to cue users throughout the experience with a set of short melodic and textural sounds that relate back to the brand’s overall sound identity. The resulting suite of sounds articulate both functional and emotional moments within the user experience, providing simple and pleasing audio feedback that relates to the holographic and interactive qualities of the visual display. The evocative sounds instill a sense of tangible, tactile feedback, while also referencing the familiar sonic palette of the Windows 10 operating system.
With a strong sound identity in place, it becomes possible to design sounds for new products and ensure that they’re strategically aligned to a larger brand message and point of view. As Microsoft continues to define their position in voice with Cortana — particularly as it moves from being a competitor to an integrated app within Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant — it’s critical to establish a distinct sound identity that connects emotionally and maintains brand consistency in the ears of consumers. From voice and IoT to virtual and augmented reality, tech companies can leverage the power of sound to drive user experience and reinforce brand recall across an expanding field of technology platforms.
Written by Paul Amitai, Executive Strategy Director
Published June 2020
(1) Callahan, John, “There are now 1.2 billion Office users and 60 million Office 365 commercial customers,” Windows Central (Mar 31, 2016).
(2) Richman, Dan, “Matthew Bennett: How Microsoft is cutting through the noise to create a more useful, beautiful sound world,” Microsoft Story Labs, 2018.
(3) Gray. Richard, “Inside the quietest place on Earth,” BBC Future (May 28 2017).
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