Sound in UX Design: Does your microwave oven hate you?

###Does Your Microwave Oven Hate You?

Or does it just hate being touched?

How else can you explain those tinny, strained chirps it emits each time you tap that keypad? I’ve owned maybe five microwaves and they’ve all made a similar sound.

Of course, sometimes UI sounds need to be harsh:

  • there isn’t much call for a smoke alarm that croons lullabies
  • air traffic control rightly demands your full and undivided attention

But it’s less obvious why a device that reheats your pizza needs to be so ‘shreiky’.

It’s not like we don’t know how to make machines with pretty sounds. Four hundred years ago we were making wind-up clocks with the most delicate and beautiful melodies.

When did we stop caring about the way things sound?

##The Radarange Lives

The microwave was invented in 1947 in a radar laboratory. Could it be that the original chirp was simply scavenged from available radar electronics components? It sounds plausible but I don’t know.

The more general answer is that microwave ovens – and ATMs and parking meters and subway ticketing machines – are usually designed by electrical engineers and not sound engineers.

They don’t actively seek out bad sounds - they just don’t think about sound much.

And the world gets beepier, chirpier and noisier.

Maybe it’s time we thought longer about the sounds we build into our systems.

##The Singing Subway

James Murphy, formerly of LCD Soundsystem, has had a dream for 14 years: To make the New York Subway sing.

Currently each ticket gate on the subway is programmed to make a noise every time a commuter passes through. By default that noise is a predictably angry chirp. chooOPP!

James wants to re-engineer each set of gates to sing the parts of a major chord. Together the gates would function something like a wind chime.

This means at quiet times a gentle, church-like hymn might tinkle through the empty spaces. At peak hour an ever-evolving, chiming symphony would sing along with the hustle of the crowd.

It’s such a brutal city - and I love it. But I think one little gift of kindness would be nice”.

What’s more, James wants to compose different signature sounds for each station. In theory, as you approach your home station you’ll know where you are without looking up from your book, just by the ambient G major melody in the background.

After a long campaign, it’s seeming likely that James’ idea will be adopted. With an average weekday ridership of nearly 9 million, this relatively small and inexpensive change can impact a lot of ears and minds.

While the NYC Subway is only one application, it is a very visible one and could influence a lot of designers and thinkers to think more about sound.

I think this is a great idea. Fingers crossed.

James demonstrates it here:

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The subway sound idea is a lovely one. Mind you, the Mac has all sorts of sounds for things like notifications, errors etc., but no matter what I choose—even tinkling bells, glass taps or whatever—those sounds still scare the bejaysus out of me sometimes. :stuck_out_tongue:

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