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Reading The design of everyday things I got to the section Using sound for visibility where Norman, the author, explains some of the advantages and disadvantages of using sound:

Sometimes things can't be made visible. Enter sound: sound can provide information available in no other way. Sound can tell us that things are working properly or that they need maintenance or repair.

... One of the virtues of sounds is that they can be detected even when attention is applied elsewhere. But this virtue is also a deficit, for sounds are often intrusive.

Are there any examples of digital applications that are successfully using sounds to improve the feedback given to the user?

The better example that I can think of are the default sounds in modern operating systems for notifications, warning dialogs and similar scenarios. But I'm sure that there are many other applications making use of sounds that I'm probably not aware of.

Bonus question: are there any UX guidelines for the implementation of these sounds?

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Just found another example: the Calcbot app youtube.com/watch?v=BOk48WNfB9g –  Marcos Ciarrocchi Feb 23 '13 at 18:30
    
How about: nearly all games. Kiosks. any software with alerts. the list seems pretty big. –  DA01 Mar 7 at 23:38

3 Answers 3

up vote 9 down vote accepted

I recommend looking at this smashing magazine article Designing With Audio: What Is Sound Good For? for additional inputs on how sound is used to communicate feedback and bring about interaction with the users. To quote the article :

MOBILE

Much of the Web is moving to mobile, which of course entails smaller screens and people on the go. But besides creating mobile-specific websites, there are ways to augment the mobile experience with audio when people aren’t looking at or can’t interact with the screen. A great example is GPS and turn-by-turn navigation systems that speak directions (either as part of a dedicated device or from a smartphone app). While audio isn’t yet native to mobile websites and apps, it is native to smartphones to indicate new email, incoming text messages and calendar events.

GAMING

For those who play video games, audio is integral to setting the mood, environment and situation, and it engages the user tremendously. First-person shooter games such as Halo and Call of Duty rely on audio feedback to show cause and effect — for example, the sound of a gun shooting and the moment of impact on the enemy. Or consider Wii Sports: the smash of the ball in tennis, the crack of the bat in baseball, and the cheer of fans all help to blur the line between the very physical game and the digital world.

CONSUMER DEVICES

More and more of our everyday devices use audio feedback: a Bluetooth headset tells you who is calling, Nike+ tells you your current distance travelled and pace, and cars beep to help you park.

Other examples given by the article are :

Audio can be used to offer information, either when no screen is available or when certain details would be better captured as audio. The Jambox by Jawbone tells the user when they need to recharge the battery. The Leapfrog LeapPad takes this one step further by specifying the type of batteries it needs!

Similarly Audi also uses a parking sensor to tell drivers that they are getting too close to a parked car as shown in this video

I also recommend looking at this research article Using Sound to Enhance Users’ Experiences of Mobile Applications which talks about how the use of sound can enhance the user experience of users while interacting with mobile devices. To quote the research paper

Tests show that users appreciated the applications for their ease of use, for being fun and effective to use and for allowing users to interact directly with the environment rather than with abstractions of the same. The multimodal user interfaces contributed significantly to the overall user experience.

With regards to best practices to using Audio with regards to interactions,I recommend looking at this smashing magazine article Guidelines For Designing With Audio

To briefly summarize the article :

CHOOSE THE RIGHT TYPE OF AUDIO

Audio can be non-verbal sounds, sometimes called “earcons,” or can be words, sometimes called prompts, and choosing the right type is important. Meaning can be embedded in an earcon in such a way that a short non-intrusive sound can represent something much larger. Think of the sound that confirms that a text message has been sent on an iPhone: the sound effectively represents the action by suggesting motion and movement away from the user. Another example is the parking-assist system in a car; the intensity and pitch of sounds create a sense of urgency to let the driver know their distance from the nearest car.

EMBED MEANING IN AUDIO EARCONS

Designing sound is complex, and audio designers will want to consider pitch, timbre, loudness, duration and direction to create the right sound. For details on how these should be considered in earcon design, consult “Auditory Interfaces: A Design Platform

DESIGN IN CONTEXT

Whether you are designing earcons or prompts, consider the particular context of the user, both physically and emotionally. If you are designing audio instructions or information, consider these factors:

  • Is there a way to differentiate between a novice user (i.e. someone who needs more hand-holding) and an expert user? This could be done by keeping track of the number of interactions that the user has with the device, and tailoring an audio experience for first-time users, while playing shortened prompts to expert users.
  • If the device has a screen, do you know whether the user will rely on visual feedback to complete their task? If so, audio might be a secondary feedback mechanism or might not be needed at all. Audio could be tailored specifically for these situations by playing less or different audio. Knowing where the device is in relation to the user could be done with certain sensors or accelerometers or derived from how the interaction was initiated.
  • Many other contexts warrant tailoring the audio experience. With GPS, for example, you can determine whether the user is driving (using their speed). Sometimes the current state of the device is relevant and can indicate the proximity of the user or their level of engagement.

The article also provides some design guidelines about how to use audio :

  • Use language that users understand. Stay away from lingo, jargon and technical terms that would make sense to the company but not to the end user.
  • Do not overload the user with too much information at once. Limit the number of audio menu options. Audio is linear, time-sensitive and transient, unlike the Web and other visual feedback media in which users can take time to read, process and select. Research has shown that remembering more than five options from an audio menu is hard. Users will often listen to all choices before picking one, so a long list will limit their ability to remember them all.
  • When writing prompts that require users to make a choice, structure them so that the menu option comes before the action; for example “For y, press x,” instead of “Press x for y.” The user will more easily be able to identify the option they want and listen more attentively for the action.

However with all of this said, Don’t forget where ever possible audio should not be used as a sole identifier of instruction or action. As per the W3 guidelines on accessiblity

1.3.3 Sensory Characteristics: Instructions provided for understanding and operating content do not rely solely on sensory characteristics of components such as shape, size, visual location, orientation, or sound.

Remember to consider assistive technology when designing systems with sound, you want to ensure you dont override assistive technologies like screen readers by having additional distracting sounds which could cause confusion

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1  
Wow! Nice answer, I'll check the articles! –  Marcos Ciarrocchi Feb 23 '13 at 18:23
    
It is important to mention here different real time applications with potentially dangerous context — for instance SCADA-applications in power plants, medical workstations or aviation systems (on board or at ground control towers). Sound signals are hard to ignore motivators to pay necessary attention to current context. –  Alex Ovtcharenko Feb 23 '13 at 18:32
    
@AlexOvtcharenko, thanks, I dont have any personal experience in those areas so thats new to me :) –  Mervin Johnsingh Feb 23 '13 at 18:33

Tweetbot on iOS uses sound a lot to notify of various things happening.

It's become a way to know if I've selected the right button or a process I have started has finished etc...

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Many devices, things with simple keypads like microwave ovens, phones and bank ATMs, use a simple sound (e.g. "beep") to reinforce the fact that a button was pushed. I've noticed it's a little disconcerting with using a bank ATM in a noisy environment and I can't hear those beeps.

I remember the sounds of an old fashioned dial up modem - the satisfaction of the connection sound sequence and a agony of the failed connection sounds..

Video games have all kinds of audio feedback, going way back to the old game of Pong where you would hear a satisfying "blip" when ball hit paddle.

re: UX guidelines for sound - one guideline is, whenever possible don't rely only on sound, try to use it in conjunction a visible indication of the event.

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Nice answer @obelia, in the book Norman actually mentions that the beeps aren't the best example: These days computers produce several sounds, and keypads, micro- wave ovens, and telephones beep and burp. These are not naturalistic sounds; they do not convey hidden information. When used properly, a beep can assure you that you've pressed a button, but the sound is as annoying as informative ... They should convey something about the actions that are taking place, actions that matter to the user but that would otherwise not be visible. –  Marcos Ciarrocchi Feb 23 '13 at 18:25
    
And the videogames example is really good, in that case the sound is key for the game experience. –  Marcos Ciarrocchi Feb 23 '13 at 18:28

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