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The web could benefit from a control panel for cross-app settings (e.g., for sounds)

I think many web sites could benefit from the thoughtful use of sounds in their UI, but they avoid sound because the cost of doing so becomes too great. Client apps on Windows and OS/X get some degree of sound support for free with the operating system, as do mobile apps. In all cases, the OS provides a control panel that lets the user control whether sounds play for various events, and which sounds to use. Here’s the venerable Sounds tab of the Windows Sound control panel, virtually unchanged since something like Windows 95:



For each standard UI event capable of generating a sound, the user can turn the sound off, or map the event to various sound files. Other sound control panels work similarly: the OS/X one is, by comparison, more limited, but the iOS Sound page in Settings has a substantial list of UI events which can be mapped to sounds (or vibration).

With this in mind, consider the work a web team has to do just to support sound. To support a pre-HTML 5 browser, they have to select from several different sound-playing technologies; in HTML 5 they can at least use the standard <audio> tag. Since many users won’t want sounds, they have to provide a Settings area within their app where the user can adjust settings. Maybe their app doesn’t even have a Settings area yet, so they’ll have to create a new one from scratch. Then they have to do some real sound design, to come up with a set of sounds that are: a) pleasing to a wide range of users, b) high quality, c) appropriate for the UI context, and d) very, very cheap. They’ll also have to do some work to ensure that sounds on their pages don’t bog down web site performance, e.g., by delaying the loading of the sound files, and being careful about which sound files are loaded and when.

For years, I’ve been a passionate believer in the use of sounds for positive reinforcement in a UI. That is, sounds can and should be used to let the user know when something has gone right, as opposed to when something’s gone wrong. The canonical example I offer is the satisfying sound of a car door closing: even when walking away from a car, you can hear when the door’s closed correctly. Even if you never consciously pay attention to that sound, the absence of that door-closing sound lets you know the door isn’t completely closed, and you turn around and walk back to close it again.

User interfaces can similarly benefit from the use of sounds for positive reinforcement. Not negative reinforcement; observe above what proportion of sound events in Windows are different flavors of, “Something’s gone horribly wrong.” I think many people in the software community, and many users, have a strong bias against sound because sound has been used so poorly in the past. The very best designers of sounds in UI are probably game designers, because they work so hard to make sound an integral and emotionally satisfying part of the game experience. The web at large could learn a lot from game sound designers.

With that in mind, I pushed hard at Cozi to get sounds into our web app. Cozi’s web product has only two sounds:

  1. A “Message Sent” sound used whenever the service successfully transmitted a message to an external destination: e.g., a shopping list was sent via SMS to a family member’s phone.
  2. A “Got it!” sound played by the app whenever the client had successfully saved user data (e.g., a new appointment) on the server.

These sounds were tightly mapped to the UI, helping to subtly confirm to the user that some desirable thing had just gone as expected. A musician and sound designer created the sounds for us, taking care to make sure the sounds fit the application aesthetic, were suggestive of the event in question, and were not intrusive. With all that work, I think the sounds worked really well, helping to round out the application user experience and gave the product some dimensionality.

And despite claims from some people that, “No one likes web sites that play sounds”, I never heard complaints about these. Most people didn’t even notice them — which is just what was intended. Just like the car door-closing sound, these sounds perform their work at a subconscious level. Still, it would have been great to offer the user a way to turn sounds on and off, and potentially let them change which sounds played. Unfortunately, it was hard to justify the additional investment in doing that.

To that end, I’m hoping that someone will eventually create a shared sound control panel for the web. This could offer sound storage, sound mapping UI (such as the above), and easy sound integration for third-party web sites. This could work something like Gravatar (from Automattic, the folks behind WordPress.com), which lets other web sites offer user-customizable “avatars”. These are really just glorified profile pictures, but such pictures do serve a useful role on sites in bringing a community of users to life. A site like GitHub can use Gravatar as a complete solution for user-customizable profile pictures at a trivial development cost.

I think Gravatar is an example of what could be possible with shared cross-app control panels: small bits of utility that let a user customize some settings they can carry with them to other sites. Facebook and Google are obviously already players in that game, but the stakes are all wrong. A site that wants to integrate with Facebook just to get a user profile picture is both making a substantial commitment to an entity whose behavior is sometimes threatening and the site must force its users to entangle themselves in Facebook’s plans — something a substantial number of people are loathe to do. I like Facebook, but if I’m just looking for someone to store a profile picture, frankly I trust Gravatar for that purpose more than I do Facebook.

There’s no great revenue model for a settings site like Gravatar, so presumably most of them would exist as public services provided by larger entities like Automattic. Hopefully more people will follow their lead, and build out some of the web’s missing control panels.