Sound design in UX isn’t new, but is almost shockingly unrecognized as a viable pathway to influencing customer purchase decisions, or carving out a memory in the minds of users. However, not only is sound viscerally recognizable, but it lingers in the brain, is more distinguishable in memory than images, and is more easily processed and registered than visual branding. In fact, CEO’s and CMO’s who have discovered the power of sonic branding have invested heavily in research and sound design processes to elevate their respective brands to create these viable sonic “signatures” that we’ve come to anticipate when engaging new (or old) products.
Sound and music have been tools used by companies for decades, starting with Muzak, a company from North Carolina that used music to curb the fright of riding elevators during the early days of skyscrapers. Stores across the globe have experimented with music since the 1980’s to influence the purchasing decisions of their patrons. These musical implementations transformed over time, morphing into innovative means to create and maintain recognition for brands, i.e. jingles, theme songs, and creating undeniable influence over the mood and tone of both users and companies alike. Now, we find ourselves in a new age of sonic branding: UX sound design.
UX sound design is a sect of sonic branding whose end goal is to distinguish service, product, or application from the rest. Those beeps and boops that come out of your phone when you swipe up, or tap on that link, or even call out to Siri might sound short, or even sometimes un-noticeable, but in reality, down to the most subconscious level those sounds will live in our heads and maintain their association indefinitely.
Their journey from the designer to the user was undoubtedly extensive and relied heavily on a scientific approach to their development. Sound designers who design for user experience often spend months (or sometimes years) going through trials, focus groups, employing the expertise of psychologists, and breaking down their sonic content until it’s sculpted just right so it can accomplish the task in which they’ve been assigned: to brand themselves in our memories and influence our behavior.
Netflix, Windows, and Apple are just a few examples of the thousands of companies that have sunk millions of dollars into their sonic branding for their products. And make no mistake, it’s paid off. That Dun-Dun you hear when you’re getting ready to watch your favorite movie or show on Netflix, or the symphonic swell that lights up like a smile in your ears when you turn on your Mac or PC isn’t stuck in your head just out of repetition. Nor are those “signatures” disconnected from the compulsion to purchase more products from the same companies over and over again.
These sounds are associated with the products they represent. If you’re satisfied with the product, those memory-stored sounds are linked to the comfort and trust of that product. Hearing those sounds brings relief to the user who knows that they’re investing in a product that they can count on, anticipate, and perhaps most importantly, a product with which they are familiar.
In a way, sound design for the user experience has been a natural progression. Brands and companies have immersed themselves in nostalgic strategies since their inception. Coca-cola shaped our image of Santa Claus. Apple consistently pays homage to the brilliant minds of the past who signify milestones in our cultural evolution. McDonalds’ marketing model lives and breathes the largesse of family influence. Our experiences with products are becoming more digital, and “engagement” has been slowly redefined as the antithesis of the physical locality.
It would behoove brands and companies to strategize their engagements in alignment with the human experience with relativity in mind. Everyone has a memory attached to a song from their childhood, or the ambiance of their sonic environment as they grew up. In 10 years, those same principles will have attached users in normality to their favorite brands, and the sounds that were seemingly designed just for them, for us, in experiential solidarity.