Heard About Earcons?
An earcon is a little sound made to increase the usability of some device or system. It’s abstract and conveys a relationship with that device or system. Multiple earcons relate to one another. An earcon delivers a sound message.
Listen to these examples:
A little sound telling you what’s going on with something. It’s not speech and not music, although it may contain traces of either. You hear it in conjunction with a system state or with a user action. It doesn’t just happen for its own sake: it’s a reference, a correlation.
The examples above are all probably recognizable from even your own devices. Before this full-blown earconography, its ancestors permeated our modern lives. BUZZ: The spin-cycle is over. DING-DING: Your keys are still in the ignition. BEEP: The scanner has read the barcode. BUHMP: The keypad has logged your input. BOOONG: Your number is up. Adam West-era Batman messages coming to us in simple sine and square wave format.
Sound designers had to later figure out what the deletion of a “file” or receiving a “friend request” sounded like. What about minimizing a “window” or incorrectly entering a “password”? If one takes the metaphors literally, one might use the sounds of surfaces or movements (files, windows, etc). That would not be an earcon. That would be something called an “auditory icon.”
Auditory icons are used for the same reasons earcons are, but take the metaphor literally. They’re supposed to sound exactly like something we’re already familiar with. Earcons must remain abstract and form an internal kind of consistency. Earcons are unique in that they convey messages without having to be literal.
A FEW EXAMPLES FROM SKYPE
Earconography continues to evolve. We’re still getting those relatively simple sound messages, but it’s not just buzzes and dings anymore. There is now a sense of subtlety, a sense of informing rather than alerting. We can even use the earcon to convey a sense of attitude about the event it’s informing us of. It can reflect our brand values.
Skype is a great example. The Skype earcons sound like Skype earcons. They play on telephone sounds, sonar, and bubbles without trying to indicate those things. They have a sense of playfulness. They have an internal kind of logic.
Here’s a bundle of Skype sounds. Listen to how they all hang together and the brand coming through.
Now that you have a general sense of the Skype earcon set, let’s get into some specifics. Logic and consistency are really what it’s all about with earcons. Here are three Skype earcons indicating three different file transfer states.
File transfer: incoming
File transfer: complete
File transfer: fail
They all start exactly the same way.
Complete and Fail end differently. Here is already a big idea, because it didn’t have to be like this. Skype might have just divided their sound messages into two camps: positive outcomes and negative outcomes. The positive side could have its one sound and the negative side could have its one sound. Anytime, for example, a call successfully ended or a file successfully transferred, the user would just hear that sound, and that’s all it was ever going to be. If the sound would have conveyed a message in a short, abstract way, it would have properly been called an earcon.
Skype took this other approach, and it has a different kind of impact. When you listen to these sounds, you’re likely aware that they’re not buzzing or beeping at you. Listen to them a few times over. You’ll be able to pick out individual pieces.
Even in that kernel piece (really the “incoming” sound), there is so much.
I hear a click, an ascending perfect fifth, and an echo. It has a tiny fade-in and an obvious fade-out. It’s not too fast, but still terse. It’s warm, but stands out (gets my attention) over the music in my headphones. It’s reminiscent of some submarine equipment, maybe, but it doesn’t sound like anything else I’ve heard before. It sounds like a Skype earcon.
Log in / Log out
One more Skype example: the start-up and sign-out sounds. When the user logs into Skype, the “success” message:
I get to the office before anyone else in the morning and so hear this sound more than anyone, as each laptop is switched on, one by one. It wasn’t until I started researching Skype’s earconography that I ever heard the log out sound.
Here it is.
It pretends to be the reverse of the log in. On log in, the pitch glides up. On log out, it glides down. That’s the most obvious feature between the two. Log in fades in a bit more slowly. Log out sort of has a false start, balloons up rapidly, and slowly fades out, really emphasizing time and space (through the echo).
But it is not the exact reverse. The pop still comes at the end of both. That’s a key difference. The simple explanation is that log out should convey a sense of finality, an endpoint to being logged in. The user needs to know for sure that she is logged out and that it is final. The pop helps make that point.
The slightly more involved interpretation goes like this: Log in and log out are the same type of success, i.e. system completion of a user command. Unlike a file failing to transfer, there’s nothing intrinsically negative about logging out. These earcons both communicate “success,” but one is an opposite kind of success than the other. It’s the gliding pitch that conveys the message in each.
And that message depends a little bit on figurative associations. Logging in is the start of something, so that earcon gets the ascending pitch treatment. Logging out is the end of something and so receives the opposite pitch treatment. This convention is used loosely. In other words, the glide is not mimicking some particular thing in the world.
We recognize it because it’s baked into our speech patterns, our oral art forms, and music. An approaching body has a higher pitch to an observer than a retreating body. And so on. There are many corollaries in the world around us. Skype has taken those notions and applied them to an idea (logging out/in) that doesn’t really exist anywhere else other than computing. It’s a very “earcon-y” way to approach this challenge.
THIS IS AN EARCON
An earcon is a little, abstract sound to clue you in on the state of some device. The fun part for design is that we get to make most of it up. That’s also the difficult part. We’re also required to build a vocabulary out of the earcons we create.
No matter how useful some computing metaphor may be (files, recycle bins, closing an app), an earcon certainly is not the literal interpretation of it (that would be an “auditory icon”). But it is not merely random either. Earcons can carry a product’s brand identity even into the aural space.
Earcons can employ conventions from rhetoric, music, and prior attempts at synthetic sound, but the point of all of it is to help the user accomplish her task, to disambiguate, to be more efficient. They also can sound beautiful and delightful.
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