What Is Sonic Branding? Part 3
In Part 2 of our Sonic Branding series, we covered sound logos and how they can be a powerful asset for building a sonic brand. But a sound logo is just one route among many for brands to build recognition and enhance consumer experience using sound.
Enter product sound design.
Sound has played an important role within consumer product experiences for a long time. From rotary telephone rings and alarm clock bells to car horns and oven timers, the sounds made by industrial-designed products historically have served a functional purpose, whether the intent is to get users’ attention or reinforce an action, or even when the sound (like a car engine) is the result of the physical engineering of the product itself. Product sound should always serve this functional purpose first and foremost, but there are massive opportunities to inject brand personality and color into product experiences to make them iconic beyond just function alone.
In recent years we’ve seen a boom in companies investing in sound as an integral part of product and app design. As sound increasingly becomes a core component of product design language, UX/UI sounds can be designed to support both product and brand experiences, while also being mindful of the potential noise they might introduce into our daily soundscapes. In this article, we explore how products can be enhanced through sound by outlining three types of product sounds, and we’ll share a set of best practices for product sound design.
What types of product sounds might a brand consider developing? Where should sound be heard within the product experience? How could product sounds help build brand awareness or increase functionality, while not just adding more noise to the world? A good place to begin is to consider how sound could be used within a product experience according to the following three categories:
System sounds are the shortest and simplest of the three types of product sounds. They’re often just a tone, beep, texture or percussive sound, but their minimalist design serves an important purpose: supporting a visual interface such as a keypad, touchscreen or TV menu screen, by providing audio feedback to a product user that their actions with a device are understood or successfully completed. Interactions like typing, swiping or using a remote control can be underscored by a highly functional system sound. In addition, these sounds are often intended to add a tactile sensibility to a digital experience and enhance the haptics of a device (such as a smartphone vibrating) to provide more sensorial feedback.
Informative sounds are also quite short in length but often designed to synchronize with a visual cue or user interface, such as a popup window or push notification, in order to get a user’s attention. Informative sounds such as alerts and notifications are heard frequently within a user experience (such as iMessage or Slack), so they should be designed to be concise and convey an appropriate level of urgency, with the aim of not being too annoying or fatiguing when heard continuously over time.
Compared to system sounds, notification sounds have the potential to be more ownable and tied to a brand experience, due in part to the consistent and repetitive nature of how they’re heard, but also because users can associate them with conversations or connections that have an emotional or attention-grabbing motivation behind them. Whether it’s a social media, dating or messaging app, informative notification sounds can become quite recognizable and iconic as they’re interwoven with our personal and professional lives.
Of the three types of product sounds, a startup or shutdown sound is the biggest opportunity for developing a signature brand sound within a product experience. Because they are heard much less frequently than system or notification sounds, and are often connected to a longer interaction that might elicit a sense of anticipation (such as a computer or car warming up) a startup or shutdown sound can serve as essentially a sound logo for a product experience, bookending the more functional, repeated activities that occur within the product.
A startup/shutdown sound can also be designed with more musicality or compositional richness, including a more layered or textured arrangement when compared to more minimally composed system and notification sounds. Introducing distinct melodies or rhythms can also make the sound more ownable. The Windows 95 startup (composed by musician Brian Eno) and macOS boot sound are two examples of product sounds that became linked in consumers’ minds with both a product experience and a distinct brand personality, standing out as signature brand assets that have the potential to enhance perceptions of the product.
Now that we’ve defined three different types of product sounds, it’s also important to keep in mind a few best practices for designing an effective sonic brand experience.
When designing for a product or app experience, it’s best to compose each sound so that it can be understood as part of a unified family. This can be achieved by composing all of the sounds in the same key signature, so that when the sounds play back within the user experience, they don’t sound dissonant in any way. It’s also best to use the same or similar instrumentation for each of the sounds in order to build a recognizable palette that has a cohesive personality or tone of voice, and can be easily associated with the brand and product.
It’s critically important to understand the use case and intention of sounds that are used for alerts or notifications in a user experience. This intention determines how to shape audio qualities such as tempo, frequency, timbre and repetition to ensure that the sound conveys an appropriate level of urgency. A text message notification on a smartphone is an alert just as a forward collision warning is in a car, but they each demand a very different level of attention.
To convey a less urgent alert, the sound can be designed with a softer attack, less bright textures and more low end. To communicate higher urgency, sounds could be designed with faster tempos, repeating notes/rhythms and higher-pitches/frequencies that get a user’s attention more quickly. This spectrum is important to consider when designing for any product or app experience.
Sound is subjective, and if used incorrectly or too frequently, it can be annoying. Understanding the entire user journey — when, where and how often sounds will be heard in support of the overall user experience — is critical to designing concise sounds that don’t take up too much mental space or detract from daily experiences. Not every interaction needs a sound, and when they’re present, they should only hang around as long as necessary. Making sure there’s space left open in the sonic experience ultimately reduces noise and ideally keeps users from wanting to mute sounds completely. Designing for space or silence within product experiences is just as important as designing for the sounds themselves – don’t overdo it.
Product sounds are not only functional but can serve as key extensions of a sonic brand identity. They can also serve double-duty as sounds used in marketing, which can be a particularly effective approach for product-driven brands.
For example, when Google Assistant was launched, product sounds heard within the voice assistant were also used in ads promoting the new voice features. Using the “Listening” and “Complete” product sounds as part of the narrative, or as a signature brand sound at the beginning of the ad, helped build consumer associations with product and brand as it entered the market. With consistent use of the sounds over time, they’ve become highly recognizable, providing a boost to the brand.
Apple has taken a similar approach. When Apple Pay was released, the payment confirmation sound was featured in ads and paired with music composed in the same key, creating a harmonious balance between the branded product sound and music. This integrated approach helped to convey a feeling of ease of use and seamlessness that was key to the product truth.
From smartphones and electric cars to social apps and home appliances, product sounds are all around us and heard throughout our daily lives. As brands increase investments in sound, it’s important to consider the broader impact on product experiences. How and where might sound enhance product functionality and brand perception? Product sounds may be small by design, but they can make a massive impact on brand and product, as well as the shape of our shared daily soundscapes.