The Case for Adding Sound
Notifications and AlertsFew things let you know that you should be paying attention like a fairly high-pitched noise. Teachers have their fingernails on the chalkboard, phones have their ringtones, and cats and babies use very similarly pitched sounds specifically to drive us mad/get what they need from you. Interface and product designers made use of this principle long before personal computers were even a thing. It’s effective. I think these are only acceptable for chat conversations, or for notifications that users specifically request. When you’re waiting for information, and you need to pay attention the moment it arrives, an alert sound might well be appreciated. Examples include everything from Facebook Messenger and Slack, to news aggregators, to dating apps of all kinds.
Success AlertsOne pattern we might use a little more in our web and app design is actually a little bit of sound to tell people things went right. Those of us gamers, at least, often have fond memories of victory music that played every time you won a battle, or completed a level. If you can find a short “success” sound that evokes nostalgia and a dopamine hit instead of just annoying people, you may have a winner.
Accessibility EnhancementAlert sounds are all well and good, but what about using the power of audio to help people with, say, sight problems? Sure, there are screen readers and such, but if you know that a large portion of your user base have vision problems, you might consider giving them optional audio cues to make things easier. Think of “clicking” sounds on buttons, a tone that changes pitch when you use click and drag on a slider, a general sense of haptic feedback that might usually be represented by animation. To people with poor vision, sound is a very useful form of skeuomorphism.
Artistic ExperimentsAnd then, of course, we have the sort of thing that might be in the “experimental” section of your portfolio, or on your CodePen profile. Here’s a site full of them: Chrome Music Lab.
General Tips for Implementing Sound
You Still Have to Try Not to Annoy PeopleAlways, always, always give people a way to shut sounds off, for good. The next question is, of course, whether you should have sound on by default. My vote? No… well, in most cases. Again, if you expect to have a lot of visually impaired people on your site, you might consider making sounds play by default, and putting in a big “You can turn these sounds off off, please don’t run away!” notice front and center.
And Lastly…Sound files can, depending on their quality, hit people real hard, right in the bandwidth. Use a CDN for your bandwidth, and cache the heck out of any sound files for the sake of your users’ bandwidth. Next, have a look at at Aural style sheets, and think real hard about how your site is presented to screen readers. And would you look at that? I’ve just about convinced myself that sound on the Internet is a good idea. I should probably stop, now.
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