My phone's looking nicely aged now, and I've been trying to equip it with appropriate sounds, or at least sounds that I like. And I've been trying to make some of my own. I'd been veering towards trying to use more natural sounds. I've always been struck by the crossing signal sounds in Amsterdam. They sound like a woodpecker, like there's something inside the traffic light hammering on it, and I like that. (That's probably how it works). And I once saw a Japanese train guard using two large, quite resonant blocks of wood to signal departure, instead of a whistle. I was trying to avoid more digital swoops and bleeps and get something more organic. What a pathetic hippy.
And it really wasn't working.
The sounds were nice coming out of the laptop but they didn't work in context. They were too pallid and natural to be useful as alerts. It was like a fire engine trying to get people out of the way by plucking on a mandolin. I couldn't hear them if the phone was in my pocket, and if it was on my desk they were drowned out by the vibrating. I wish I'd read Chris's notes on The Design Of Future Things first, because it's clear I was pursuing the Don Norman Natural Sounds Fallacy:
"p59: Natural Interaction
Although simple tones and flashes of white or colored light are the easiest ways for designers to add signals to our devices, they are also the least natural, least informative, and most irritating of means. A better way to design the future things of everyday life is to use richer, more informative, less intrusive signals: natural signals. Use rich, complex, natural lights and sounds…
Like what? This is one of the most irritating passages. The only example is ‘the sound of boiling water’, which is trite, as it’s actually water boiling in a kettle. If you start using ‘natural’ notifications, they aren’t natural to the task in hand, and are therefore a learnt association. This is just how it has to be for intangible interactions. Even the most natural – a ringing bell of a phone call – is a learnt sound, from over a century of use. Notifications are a Hard Problem, given the palette of interactions we can use and the design constraints."
He's completely right. This is a really hard problem. You don't hear a gently knocked woodblock in a crowded cafe because a) you're not tuned to that sort of sound as an alert and b) it's not sonically distinctive in that environment. It just melts into the ambience. The sweet spot is un-natural enough to be ear-catching but subtle enough not to be jarring or embarrassing. And, learnt association is really powerful and useful here, as this Nextel example illustrates (bottom of the article) (via Intentional Audio).
I tried experimenting with almost all of these, really interesting sounds, made by some of my favourite sound people. And, again, they didn't work. Too subtle to be noticed unless they were loud. Or too jarring to be socially acceptable. This, for instance, is a lovely noise. Gentle, organic (ish, in that it's a bell). But it's drowned out by vibration and in a noisy environment you don't hear the bell striking, it just sounds like a high whine. And this, even more organic noise has much the same problems.
I guess as technology learns to be social it's also got to learn to be polite. And the best way for a sound to be polite is for you to be able to hear it, but no-one else. And you can't do that with volume, you have to create something that's personal and relevant to the listener - something they're attuned to, like the way you can hear your own name through a drone of conversation.
So, I thought a good thing would be to use sounds that meant something in particular to me. I stole/edited/made this (which is my favourite guitar noise ever) and found this (which is everyone's favourite robot noise). This seems to work well. I'm tuned to these noises so I notice them at a lower volume than I would a preloaded alert. Which means they're less intrusive to everyone else. And I notice them because they're musical, they feature change and tension and release, but incredibly compressed into a short period of time and a narrow tonal range.
I suppose, as we start to create more devices that are designed to hover at the edge of our attention music could have more of a role to play in 'ambient alerting'. We don't have to learn the musical cues for 'be anxious' or 'be excited' or 'calm down' or 'he's a baddy' - we've been trained in them by lifetimes of movies etc. It's more comprehensible than flashing lights.
I'm glad I tried making sounds though. When you've got all these digital tools in your laptop you're often tempted to think you can do anything. It reminded me that you can't just diletante your way into some things. Some things are just hard. It makes you realise how clever all these people are.