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Editor’s Note: Sonification: Its Time Has Arrived

This issue focuses on sonification. Some usability and user-experience professionals in medicine, health, music, video, the military, and other realms may consider information sonification and sound in the user experience a regular, typical area for consideration. For many other professionals however, sonification remains more exotic than quotidian, mysterious and elusive, even though sound is an indispensable aspect of most of our daily lives.

UX managing editors Susan Fowler and Alice Preston organized a workshop about sound at UPA 2004 that resulted in manyinteresting, valuable presentations. When the suggestion arose to use this workshop as a basis for assembling contributions for a special focus of UX, I was very much in favor because sonification, and within that topic, information sonification, are too often neglected in professional journals and more general publications.

Sound, like color, has a dramatic impact on our emotions. For example, many people do not realize the power of movie soundtracks to influence our perceptions, even the logic of our narrative understanding. (Try performing the simple experiment of turning off the soundtrack of a movie and guessing what is happening; or add digital music as a constant soundtrack to daily experience and notice its effect.)

But dramatic storytelling and persuasive communication are not the only realms of sound. Research in the 1980s by Sara Bly, then at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California, showed that sound plus visual display could be superior to either medium alone in conveying information in the human-computer interface. She and others explored issues of communicating with sound at a CHI conference panel in the 1980s. Another early conference to focus on the topic resulted in Kramer’s 1994 publication devoted to sound in the user interface. The topic also appears in many handbooks of human-computer interaction.

Sound raises many intriguing issues for research, analysis, and evaluation. User experience practitioners must use special techniques to capture evidence, prepare appropriate materials for evaluations such as user tests, design and edit prototypes, and produce the finished designs.

Among other challenges, one must consider how to report results to peers. In printed publications, documenting sound is especially challenging—you can show musical notation or spectrogram, but only trained musicians or engineers will be able to read the visual as sound. Now, however, with multimedia publication on CDs and the Internet, reporting, publication, and access to acoustic phenomena become more feasible and plentiful.

This very ubiquity of sound in the digital realm makes it even more imperative that sound be considered with other dimensions of usability and user experience:

  • How best to test, conduct focus groups, and carry out ethnographic study of sound?
  • How best to use sound to communicate data, provide information, present knowledge, and assist in decision making?
  • What is the impact of culture, age, gender, and education on the use or impact of sound?
  • What is the use or impact of sound on trust, persuasion, cognition, and emotion?
  • What is the best way to use sound with graphics and verbal content?

This list could certainly be expanded. In the coming years, sound will become an indispensable aspect of all human-computer communication and interaction. Many years from now, I predict that we shall look back on earlier products and services without sound just as we look at silent movies now: quaint artifacts of a bygone era.

Shall we get started with the new era? Read on…