There are many beautiful, beautiful apps out there for phone and tablet users to gaze upon. Screens glide effortlessly into and out of sight. Icons and buttons have a uniform style and visual branding from app to app (in high-quality products, at least). The trend towards flat-UI took designers and product managers by storm throughout 2013, with the shift making waves up through coverage by tech journalism.
Where is the same energy and effort on the audio side?
It’s been a bit of a talking point of mine at startup and entrepreneur networking events when discussing my audio design position. People figured out that visual design and implementation mattered and could shape the success of a product as much as the feature list or programming. Good graphic design firms floated higher up the priority list, and for good reason. We live in a visually-dominated society and mobile devices were finally capable of rendering and displaying gorgeous high-resolution interfaces and interacting with them in new and innovative ways.
You will get no argument from me about the value of this visual upgrade.
But where is the equivalent audio revolution?
Memory restraints are less of an issue with every tech cycle. Notification sounds are beginning to improve, but those end up being little more than audio logos — isolated ear candy without a unifying audio aesthetic.
The major category of exception is games, a community who is used to carefully designed audio and attention to sonic branding (both in music and sound design). You could blindfold someone, play a clip from an Angry Birds game, and within moments I’m certain millions of people could identify the iconic pig snorts, bird flinging, and peppy music. Complexity isn’t the only thing working here, though. Even the navigation menus of Xbox Live are effective, unified, and deliver valuable information. Backwards, forwards, canceling, confirming, waiting, etc. all make their message clear while giving the experience an overall sheen and classiness.
I’ll save specifics for a future writing, but I’d like to see our product managers and designers consider audio with the same potential to empower, impress, and inform as visual design. Sound is naturally more intrusive and less inconspicuous, so there will be many considerations as to when to have sound and what it should and should not be. There are much greater inconsistencies of sound quality from a mono phone speaker to ear buds to Beats by Dre to a car audio input jack. These things may make the task more delicate or more difficult, but I see a huge opportunity to improve user experience in the existing market of beautiful but voiceless apps.
My suggestion? Design for emotion and information, and then consider all of the tools we have to achieve those goals— visual, auditory, haptic, and beyond.