Like many others, I have been working from home during the pandemic. It’s been stressful for sure. Stressful on me, on my family… on my home network. You can imagine my frustration when my internet service went out during work hours last week. I did the usual modem restart. I also unplugged everything and plugged it back in. I restarted my computer. After all that didn’t work, I called up my internet provider (Xfinity) to see if they could help. Xfinity has an automated call center that takes you through a series of prompts to get to “internet technical support.” When I got this point, the automated voice on the other side told me she recognized my phone number and asked if my address was correctly associated, which it was. She then said, “hold on while I look up your account information.” At that moment there was a sound of a keyboard typing… as if a real person was typing in information into a computer. I never really thought about how that little piece of sound contributes to my experience. Thinking of Don Norman’s design principles, it definitely gave me feedback to let me know the system was doing something while it processed my information. I thought this was a great use of sound for a user experience in a completely audio interface. Could this keyboard typing sound also be considered a metaphor in this situation? With the system being automated, there really isn’t a keyboard being typed upon. However, this simple sound let me know or better yet, let me perceive it was physically looking up my account information.
This got me thinking even further on how sound metaphors and feedback play a role in our everyday experiences. In the digital age, there are a variety of examples of sounds from the analog experience being used in a new digital experience. Continuing with the theme of phone experience, think about the simple act of pushing “buttons” on your phone. Prior to smartphones, users would push physical buttons on a phone. Now, most smartphones have a completely digital interface, including the phone keypad. Users are touching a designated spot on their phone face to “push” a “button”. The analog sound contributes to this experience. In this digital interface, touching a digital phone keypad is different than touching a keypad to unlock your phone for example, which provides a simple “blip” sound to let users know they are touching a number on the keypad. The sound feedback provided to users gives the users audio context that they are touching the correct spot on their handheld computer.
Can you think of any other non-visual feedback and/or metaphors in everyday user experiences? As companies continue to expand into the future through digital transformation and user-centered design, it’s important to consider those interactions beyond the visual.