How Can Audio Environments Affect Interface Design?

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We hear thousands of different sounds every day. Each of these shapes our experience and memory of that day forever. Some sounds, particularly the sound of speech, are more important than others, such as city traffic noise. However, they all play a part in coloring our experiences.

It is the job of the interface designer to consider everything about the user, and the effects of everyday auditory input should never be ignored. In this discussion, we will consider three kinds of auditory input that shape a person’s day, and what it may mean to an interface designer.

This is not a set of rules. Rather, like any practice, it is a set of practical theory adoptions that may help you in your process.

Music

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This is an extremely important variable to anyone whose job includes considering their users. Why is it so important? Because most of the time, music is a voluntary auditory input. If you want to get to know your user, one of the best ways is to find out what they like, and what they choose; musical taste can, because of its voluntary nature, be very revealing about the likes and dislikes of a person as a whole.

For instance, if your user base is made up of fans of mellow music from genres like jazz or classical piano, you may want to consider a classy, smooth interface that visually focuses on contour and flow. This is not only because the sound of mellow music often produces a mental picture that is flowing and smooth, but also because music often divides people into subcultures, which have similar tastes and style preferences that are unique to the subculture.

It should be noted that subcultures are not always formed because of music, and that music is not the only defining factor; however, some music has stronger subcultures than other music. Particularly hardcore/metal, jazz, folk, indie-electronica, indie-rock, rap/hip-hop, and “emo.” These genres sometimes even create subcultures of people who are referred to simply by using the name of the genre as an adverb — such as “he is indie” or “she is hardcore.”

Because of the incredibly revealing nature of subcultures, music preference is a very important consideration to the study of your user’s experience in relation to their audio environment.

Voice & Language

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Language is, as we covered in this post, one of our most basic methods of communication. But what else can we learn from language?

We know that most languages have different accents, which change the dynamics of the language itself. So let’s speak strictly on an aesthetic/auditory basis. When someone speaks, their voice has different properties of range, harshness, tone, timber, and pronunciation. These different qualities affect the human mind’s perception of a certain message both on a conscious and an unconscious level.

I am reminded of a great Arrested Development episode in which the main character Michael Bluth cannot resist Rita, who has the mind of a young child. Why is he so attracted to her? He doesn’t realize her mental impediment because of her British accent. It is very common for language and accent to effect the message of verbal content. Often, southern accents in the United States connote hospitality, while northern accents connote intelligence.

Usually, however, these positive connotations are also often accompanied by negative connotations. Southern accents connote a bit of dopiness — though not necessarily true — while northern accents connote impatience. Note: these are only a few of the many different kinds of language analysis and possible connotations that result from language.

Different languages also sound “harsh” or “smooth.” Good examples of this would be German, a generally harsh language, and Spanish, a generally smooth language. A harsh language has harder, more defined syllables. A smooth language has softer, less defined syllables. Harsh languages have more contrast between syllables, while smooth languages flow easily from one syllable to the next.

So what does this mean for interface designers? First of all, consider your audience and their place of origin. Certainly, a person with a southern accent would be less inclined to grab a hold of the connotation of lower intelligence as a result of his or her accent. If it is appropriate, allow your design to fit into the cultural divisions that are a result of language differences. If your audience speaks a harsh language, their minds are most likely more apt to deal with higher contrast; however, you may want to consider offering a refreshing change of pace by using a lower contrast, smooth design.

Conclusion

There are, unfortunately, no hard-fast rules or proven constants when it comes to audio analysis and the significance of that analysis to interface design. Each interface requires different user analysis, and each interface will provide different results for that analysis.

Instead of teaching rules, this article is meant to get you thinking about the possibilities that come through the analysis of your user’s environmental audio, both voluntary (such as musical preference) or involuntary (such as voice or language).

Guitar neck on wall photo from Shutterstock.

 

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