Applying sound to UI

Sound can give expression to interactions and reinforce specific functionality.


Sound use cases

Sound can provide feedback or add decoration to a user experience when applied to strategic moments.

Sound as feedback

Sound can be applied to interactions by linking an action, or a state change, to an audio cue. These sounds are called earcons, and they...

Read More

Sound can be applied to interactions by linking an action, or a state change, to an audio cue. These sounds are called earcons, and they can represent information, actions, or events. Their sound can reinforce both the meaning of an interaction and a product’s aesthetic, emotion, and personality.

To suit an earcon to a particular context, it can be designed using either inspiration from real-world situations or invented specifically to express an abstract concept. Familiar sounds that are based on experiences in the real world are referred to as skeuomorphic.

Skeuomorphic sounds

A lock sound is skeuomorphic – a real-world representation of a sound.

Abstract sounds

An abstract lock sound emphasizes lighthearted tones to communicate a user successfully completing an action.

Sound as decoration

Sound used for decoration can amplify an expressive or playful moment. It’s usually used to communicate an emotional state. This type of sound should be...

Read More

Sound used for decoration can amplify an expressive or playful moment. It’s usually used to communicate an emotional state. This type of sound should be used judiciously and reserved for moments with high emotional resonance.

Do.

Use decorative sound sparingly, limited to moments that reinforce your product’s themes and unique voice.

Caution.

Limit the frequency of decorative sound to reduce user fatigue of the sound.

When not to use sound

Building silence into a UI design is just as important as knowing when to apply sound. In many instances, sound isn’t needed and it can...

Read More

Building silence into a UI design is just as important as knowing when to apply sound. In many instances, sound isn’t needed and it can actually detract from user focus and comfort. Similar to using negative space in visual design, silence creates a space for other elements to receive focus.

For example, sound isn’t usually suitable for:

  • UIs that require privacy or discretion
  • Users who have requested no interruptions
  • Actions that are performed frequently

In any context, sound should elevate the visual experience rather than detract from it.


Hero sounds

Hero sounds are representations of a product and brand that highlight an important moment, evoke an emotional state, or express celebration.

They occur in pivotal interactions, such as those that:

  • Celebrate a significant positive action the user has taken
  • Welcome users to a new app or experience
  • Confirm a key moment of a product’s purpose

Hero sounds occur infrequently, and because of their prominence, they should be applied in consistent ways.

Celebration

Sound expresses a sense of success, accomplishment, or reward. This UI uses a hero sound to celebrate a user finishing all items in their inbox.


Notifications

Notifications are prominent requests for user attention. Their primary role is to help direct user attention, and they provide an opportunity to give a custom sound identity to emphasized interactions. Because they occur more frequently in a UI than other sounds, they should generally be shorter than hero sounds and crafted in a way that is suitable for being played multiple times.

Environmental factors

Notifications should be designed to be audible from a variable range of user distances from a product, and in scenarios like loud environments. The sound itself can vary to attract the focus of the ear, using rhythmic, tonal, and frequency variation.

It’s recommended to provide options that allow users to personalize notifications, with options that range from basic, non-decorative sound to rich, decorative sound.

Notifications and alerts

Push notifications Notifications can communicate actionable UI elements using custom sound. Alerts Alerts use brighter timbres and energetic composition to draw attention or convey urgent...

Read More

Push notifications

Notifications can communicate actionable UI elements using custom sound.

Alerts

Alerts use brighter timbres and energetic composition to draw attention or convey urgent information.

Ringtones, alarms, and timers

Ringtones, alarms, and timers are alerts that often have a playful style. They can be customized to suit user preferences and brand personality. Ringtones Ringtones...

Read More

Ringtones, alarms, and timers are alerts that often have a playful style. They can be customized to suit user preferences and brand personality.

Ringtones

Ringtones can be musical, expressive, and playful.

Alarms and timers

Alarms and timers can accommodate use cases and user preferences, such as gentler or more abrupt sounds.


System sounds

Primary UX sounds

Primary UX sounds are generated by an operating system (or device) to provide user feedback. They can add sound to any interaction, such as: They...

Read More

Primary UX sounds are generated by an operating system (or device) to provide user feedback. They can add sound to any interaction, such as:

  • Menu navigation
  • Confirming a user’s direct action
  • Data input

They should be in harmony with a product’s sound aesthetic, while remaining simple and understated.

Usage

These sounds occur more frequently than other sounds in the UI. Because they are repeated throughout an experience, they should be suitable for being played often (without feeling annoying or redundant).

Navigation

Subtle navigation sounds use gentle feedback to improve a UI’s ease of use.

Positive selection

Subtle selection sounds use gentle feedback to improve a UI’s ease of use.

Secondary UX sounds

Secondary UX sounds are played less frequently in a UI. They should reflect a product’s personality, but they are primarily used for functional purposes, to...

Read More

Secondary UX sounds are played less frequently in a UI. They should reflect a product’s personality, but they are primarily used for functional purposes, to inform users of state changes, or to indicate infrequent actions.

Feed refresh

A subtle tone can express when a content feed is refreshed.

Unavailable selection

A tone can inform users when something isn’t available for interaction.


Ambient sounds

Ambient sound is a decorative layer of sound that expresses emotion while communicating a product’s personality or brand.

It can be placed anywhere in an experience that warrants a strong sound element, such as:

  • A start-up flow, to welcome the listener to the experience
  • An accompaniment to a home screen, to express an emotional tone and user’s location in a UI

Ambient sound should provide atmosphere and not detract the user from performing a task. It can also provide cues, by changing the tone of music to indicate a change in state.

Ambient sounds can be based on music, environmental sounds, or other sounds that create atmosphere.

Ambient backgrounds

This ambient sound subtly expresses a product’s themes.