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When designing mobile media apps (specifically audio-only ones), what should they do when a notification comes in and phone volume is on?

I noticed two different behaviors on my phone - Spotify will pause the track, sound the notification, and then resume the track, while Pandora will lower the track volume to about 30%, sound the notification at full volume, and then resume the track at full volume. (If the phone is on silent or vibrate, the phone will vibrate or make no noise, and the track will continue playing at full volume).

Which one of these behaviors provides a better user experience?

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4 Answers

up vote 27 down vote accepted

Put on a song that you know, and have someone hit pause and play at random times, then have them randomly turn the volume up and down.

Lowering the volume, rather than pausing the music, is less disruptive to the user. Your brain can fill in the gaps in music they are listening to if they are even somewhat familiar with it (it's why people can listen to the radio with less than perfect reception).

The counter case would be listening to a podcast or spoken track. The listener can probably string the sentence together after missing a word or two, but it probably depends a lot on the topic. It might be better to pause a spoken track, and maybe go as far as back up two seconds, and fade back in from there.

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Good point. Also, you don't know what people are doing while listening to music on their device. For example they could be out running and using the music to keep themselves running to a certain rhythm. If you stop/start the music you lose that rhythm. –  JonW Apr 18 '13 at 16:30
    
That's what I figured. I personally liked the volume drop better, and that makes sense. Of course I'd survey the population first if at all possible. –  SSumner Apr 18 '13 at 17:05
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If you're stopping it entirely, there's even a third option: Jump backwards a second or two once you resume, so your brain has a place to pick it back up. 'Tho, this would probably only work well for spoken audio, not music. –  Izkata Apr 18 '13 at 18:11
    
I like this answer, with the caveat that it depends on what the notification is for. If it is something of utmost importance, then the relative "jarring disruption" of pause-notify-play may be preferable, to make it stand out more. Otherwise, you stand the chance that the notification will bleed into the music and not be noticed. –  Wonko the Sane Apr 18 '13 at 20:25
    
@WonkotheSane - obviously, phone calls or similar events should stop playback. But text messages, emails, or other app notifications shouldn't probably. –  SSumner Apr 19 '13 at 4:53
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The choice of which is better is mostly personal. I know some people prefer the one and other people prefer the other.

Either one is a fair choice, so ask some of your users and then make a decision on the default behaviour based on their feedback. I would however recommend having an option in your app for how to handle the situation.

In addition to the two methods you listed, I would suggest having the option to only vibrate on notification while the media is playing.

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Here's another vote for ducking (continuing playback at a lower output level).

However, I'll add that in Android, this decision is handled (at least in part) by the interrupting application. When an Android application requests audio focus, it provides a hint to other applications regarding the duration of the sound it is about to play (e.g., short sounds like notifications or driving directions vs. long sounds like music and videos), and whether it is acceptable for other applications to duck. Of course you should respect these audio focus hints if they are available on your platform, and you should make sure that your application provides proper audio focus hints to others.

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Did not know that, excellent info! –  SSumner Apr 19 '13 at 3:17
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I agree with John that getting feedback from your user is very important because depending on the target audience(age group) you may get a range of answers. Personally from my experience when I am listening to music I am either traveling on the train or I am at work. The last thing I want to happen is have my music stop every time notifications comes in.

The reason why is because if your music just stops due to a notification you are now forcing your user to disrupt what they are doing to press play.This goes against what we want to accomplish with usability.

Where as if the volume goes down to 30% and plays a little bing sound then the music goes back up the user knows that a notification came in and it is up to them when they want to look at the notification. They are never disrupted.

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