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Many electronic devices, mostly cell phones, by default beep on keypress. What's the point in that?

Once a key is pressed their state is changed and that's reflected in the graphic interface anyway. Controlling those devices without looking onto screen is rather problematic, so the user has to look onto the screen anyway.

What's the extra value from those beeps?

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fyi, the phone is a terrible example because people often -do- use their phone without looking at the screen. (This is one of the reasons that I don't like smart phones. I wish they had a smart phone that looked like a dumb flip phone.) –  user606723 Aug 15 '11 at 14:46
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Also, phones are not a good example because there was a time when they didn't have a graphical display –  Earlz Aug 15 '11 at 16:04
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To annoy the heck out of nearby people :) –  Steve Moser Aug 22 '11 at 2:48
    
Apart from the obvious reassuring feedback, if you press a key with your finger on a screen, how do you see that the key graphic change if you cover it with a finger? Just saying... Also, many smartphones have a latency issues which delays the visual feedback too much... –  Oskar Duveborn Sep 2 '11 at 13:49
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Blind and vision impaired people can use phones... –  CaffGeek Jan 24 '12 at 20:36

10 Answers 10

up vote 73 down vote accepted

To provide several channels of feedback:

  • haptic: "I feel the key has been pressed",
  • optic: "I see the key change its color" and
  • auditive: "I hear the system felt that I pressed the key".

The change in the graphic interface is the effect of this action, and thus an additional, indirect form of feedback.

Why should different channels be provided at once?

  • Accessibility. You cannot be sure that all of your users can see/hear/feel equally well, and it's difficult to know in advance in which context (noisy? bright?) the device will be used, so they should have the possibility to choose.
  • Reassurance. New users may appreciate every little detail that confirms, "you are on the right track", because they use it for the first time, use it rarely, or just don't trust in technology.
  • Surprise. Ask children, they will be excited of every way the system feeds back: "Yes, you did something, I understand you." And even as adults, when we use an object for the first time, and it confirms our actions in unexpected ways, this may remain an invaluable "first impression". (From a usability point of view, surprise is something you try to avoid, as everything ought to be "intuitive", "obvious". UX, however, would stress that a playful discovery may add to the product's value.)
  • It feels natural. When we interact with real objects, we always have different channels of feedback. (Grasping a bottle means: feeling that I touch it, feeling the resistance in my muscles, hearing the sound of cracking plastic, and seeing how it moves.)
  • Replacement/Ersatz. Especially touch-screen keyboards lack the usual haptic feedback, which needs to be compensated by other channels.
  • Conformity to user expectations. If all mobile phones used an auditive feedback, you would need strong reasons not to give it - as you risk to lose customers that are accustomed to this sort of feedback and might class it as defect.

The sound can also convey additional meaning. E.g. short, high-pitched beeps for "OK", and longer, low-pitched beeps for "You currently can't type" or "This key isn't allowed here".

Scientific Background

Interfaces that have multiple channels of feedback are called multimodal (or multimedia), see papers about it.

  • The different modalities should be selectable by the user. This is not only a matter of preference, but also of privacy. (Reeves et. al. 2004)
  • The information the modalities convey need to be synchronised (redundant or complementary). (Reeves et. al. 2004)
  • User input may be multi-modal as well (voice, gestures, etc.). (E.g. Oviat 1999, PDF)

The field of Tangible Computing explores its extreme case: digital interaction mapped to a real-world object. Digital information may be displayed through real objects ("Tangible bits"), or even allow direct manipulations through this object.

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Let us not forget it also informs you when your pocket/bag decides to start mashing up keys and call your ex.

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Good one :-), however, I am not sure the key press tones are load enough to hear from within a bag and I am sure they sound be loader, since that would be irritating. –  Danny Varod Feb 3 '13 at 14:07

It allows user with poor typing skills to recognize that their key press was registered while keeping their eyes on the keyboard instead of looking up into whatever area of the GUI is being updated. Anecdotal: There's a gas station near me with keypad that had letters that are hard to depress (I guess they are just worn out) and there's no auditory feedback. It aggravates the crap outa me.

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The main ticket system for commuting in Stockholm uses touch screen devices to purchase tickets. But when you "touch" a button on the screen, there's a several second delay before anything actually happens on screen. Yes, it's that bad.

So most people hammer on the screen in vane and then all of a sudden the screen moves several steps forward, having stored the previous touches, selecting whatever options where on that location...

...after a few months, they updated the ticket devices to provide a beep sound on any registered button press. That reduced the aggravation by a lot. They're still very unresponsive though, but at least now you know when you've managed to press a friggin button and know to wait a few seconds for the screen to update.

Haptic feedback is also important, compare a touch-typist typing on a real keyboard and an on-screen keyboard. The feel of actually depressing each key, the visual indication on your screen and the sound that's made by hitting the keys all help to provide a rich and intuitive experience typing quickly and accurately.

In my opinion, the beep sound is a poor but better-than-nothing substitute for haptic feedback as to not leave the user completely in the dark.

The question is interesting though because the "new" touch generation doesn't seem to actually care or be bothered by ergonomically sound (pun not intended) design. Everything should be a touch screen with nothing but visual feedback, if you're lucky and the underlying operating system can keep up with your interaction with it. I feel old whenever I discuss this with people of today - so I feel it's interesting because maybe, perhaps, I'm just plain wrong and typing on a touchscreen keyboard with limited feedback will be orders of magnitudes faster than oldschool keyboards, and I'm just not re-learning quickly enough? ^^

(though I'm hoping it's mainly a design decision to reduce costs, like stoves with completely useless touch keys must be much cheaper to produce than stoves with actual dials you can interact with, and also induce less maintenance costs. However, there's seldom a "high-end" stove interface to choose :7 I've dabbled with doing an article on stove interfaces, they look all the same but the touch button arrangements differ so one stove could require 3 touches to setup for a dinner, and another 27 presses for the same setup)

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It's not so it can be done without looking, it's because beeping provides you with additional feedback that your action has taken place. It's a confirmation that your action has been detected.

It's a similar situation with cellphones that vibrate when you press an onscreen keyboard key - although the key you type appears on screen it vibrates to give you additional feedback.

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Reassurance, additional feedback and accessibility as stated above, I imagine are the main reasons. In this particular case part of the reasoning for the feature could have been the fact traditional phones (without a screen) provided this audio feedback, therefore it was left in place as a form of familiarity and inherited from the traditional phone.

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+1 I like your point about backwards compability, so I added the conformity thing to my answer. –  giraff Aug 15 '11 at 9:31

The beep confirms that one action has taken place.

User's can then choose to do the next 'look at screen' task - having first checked that they are not about to walk into a lampost.

So basically it allows the sequence of tasks to be broken up between dealing with the external environment at the same time.

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Walk into a lampost.. for more importantly, make sure they aren't about to drive into a tree. –  user606723 Aug 15 '11 at 14:48
    
I don't think sound feedback works particularly well in cars due to background sound levels. Cars need controls which depend on tactile 'feedback', such as the position 'status' of controls.' –  PhillipW Aug 15 '11 at 14:54
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Your car must be alot louder than mine then? –  user606723 Aug 15 '11 at 15:31
    
I have the radio / CD player on generally. –  PhillipW Nov 2 '11 at 10:37

Another idea about the button beep being active by default: Despite being annoyed of stupids sounds (e.g. in public transportation) I like my new phone/whatever device to beep when I unwrap and test it. After celebrating the new, it's switched to silent.

So, even if (probably) not used aftwerwards, it may act as a decoration for the soon-to-be-sold device at the store etc.

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What about the fake photo-taking noise all digital cameras have as default when you purchase them? I always turn it off. I can tell a picture was taken.

But I guess some people like lots of sounds to reassure them of what's happening or what happened.

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IMO, it is feedback not only for you, but also for those who were photographed. This applies to electric cars with fake motor sound to an even greater extent. –  giraff Nov 2 '11 at 14:24
    
My grandmother actually had a great deal of trouble figuring out when a camera took a picture because her camera had the shutter sound off. It certainly makes some sense for people used to X interaction resulting in Y stimulus, removing the stimulus can be confusing. –  Ben Brocka Nov 18 '11 at 17:32

It helps visually challenged people to work efficiently and speedily .

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Okay, but most people are not visually challenged. Why is this behavior on by default? –  sharptooth Aug 16 '11 at 5:42
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I am visually challenged, when the sun shines so bright that my display isn't bright enough ... so it also depends on the context. –  giraff Aug 16 '11 at 15:01
    
yeah you both are right but there are so many points being discussed above vat i found missing just added that. As i know several visually challenged people it help them a lot and as far as default behaviors is concerned , i dont think it is a wise decision for each visually challenged person to ask cell phone brands to customize their phone. –  ANSHUL JAIN Aug 16 '11 at 16:29

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