Earcon, the new icon

December 19, 2018 Aditi Agarwal
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Earcon

Graphical symbols or icons that represent information visually is one of the most successful inclusions made to the user-computer interface. Icons present a fair amount of information in a brief but comprehensive manner. Nevertheless, dense use of visual identities can result in cognitive overload, having an adverse effect on user’s decision-making performance. So, it is important to explore alternative ways of communication and sound is a powerful alternative since humans can process sound quicker. Here a non-verbal audio message – earcon came into picture.

What is Earcon?

The term ‘earcon’ was coined by D. A. Sumikawa in an article ‘Guidelines for the integration of audio cues into computer user interfaces’, written in year 1985. An earcon is a brief, characteristic, harmonised and structured sound and its job is to communicate a specific message, event, status to a user or convey a task being performed. Earcon is an audio identical of an icon that can be heard all day while performing our tasks. Operating systems and applications user earcons to increase the usability of the system or device.

If you look around yourself, you’ll find that you hear earcons throughout the day. Some examples are:

  • A beep sound that appears on an event of error
  • A beep sound that appears on an event of error
  • Sound heard when you empty trash on your computer
  • Beeps you hear when you press keys on your touchscreen mobile while typing a message.

Earcon Vs. Auditory Icon

Many times, earcons are confused with auditory icons, but earcons are different from auditory icons. The chief differences between the two are:

  • An auditory icon is a concise sound that indicates a particular object, action, event or function on the interface, whereas earcon is an organised, short and peculiar audio message based on musical sounds that indicates a particular event or communicate information / feedback to the user.
  • Auditory icons are recorded everyday sounds used for the event they indicate, directly or indirectly. Whereas, earcons are usually synthesised tones having no connection to the event.

Earcon example: Opening/shutting down Windows

 

Auditory Icon example: Car horn used to represent car

 

Types of Earcons

There are four types of earcon structures: one-element, compound, hierarchical and transformational earcons, which are explained below:

1. One-Element Earcons:

These are the simplest earcons that are used to transmit/convey only single bit of information. These earcons can only be single pitch or have rhythmic attributes. One-element earcons cannot be decomposed further to obtain more information. E.g. save, open, etc. are one-element earcons.

2. Compound Earcons:

These are created by linking together one-element or any other form of earcons to create more relevant messages. In several ways, they are corresponding to form a sentence from words where these earcons indicate phrases. E.g. two one-element earcons ‘open’ and ‘save’ forms compound earcons to open the file and then save it.
These are created by linking together one-element or any other form of earcons to create more relevant messages. In several ways, they are corresponding to form a sentence from words where these earcons indicate phrases. E.g. two one-element earcons ‘open’ and ‘save’ forms compound earcons to open the file and then save it.

3. Hierarchial Earcons:

These are formed around ‘grammar’ where each earcon is a branch of a tree and each branch receives all the properties of the branches above it in the tree. So, an unpitched rhythm may symbolize an error, the next level will change the tone of that rhythm to symbolize the kind of error.

4. Transformational Earcons:

These are also formed around ‘grammar’, but in order to understand them, only the rules by which earcons are formed need to be learnt. In transformational earcons, every auditory parameter like pitch, rhythm, timbre, etc. may be transformed to change the meaning of an earcon.

Designing VUI with Earcons – Do’s and Don’ts

Nowadays, earcons are most pervasive than ever. As voice first experience design platforms like Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant are accelerating the magnification of voice user interfaces (VUI), designers are effectively using it to create sound identities and strategies to help users understand and interact with VUI.

Do’s:

  • Earcons should be as brief as possible, however, can be a bit longer if used as greetings.
  • Limit the use of earcons in any interface to just a few sounds so that user doesn’t have to learn too many.
  • Use earcons consistently in an interface so that it’s easy for the user to associate it with the right message.

Don’ts:

  • There is probability that user associates an earcon with a wrong message or with something, which designer has not intended.
  • If as a designer you think that you have to instruct users what an earcon means, don’t use an earcon.
  • Don’t intensify the earcon to such an extent that it will cause annoyance.

Benefits of using earcon

  • Earcon communicates the message more quickly and effectively, like success and failure of a task.
  • Earcon is an emotionally sonorous and natural way for the users to know where they are, without saying a single word and understand what is happening.
  • Earcons grab user’s attention instantly.
  • Visually impaired and blind people can be guided by the use of earcons.
  • Earcons are very subtle but are effective and impactful, especially in mission critical situations and critical care environments. For example, earcons are used in interfaces designed for doctors to be used in operation theatre, providing information about the patient’s current systolic and diastolic blood pressure.
  • It ensures safety and security in highly automated and complex systems as well as safety in critical human-machine systems. For example, pilot is warned and alerted by earcon in state of an emergency inside the cockpit.

As is evident from this, earcons help people comprehend what to do and some of them are understood without a conscious thought. Today, earcons are widely used by designers to design better user experiences and voice interfaces. As voice user interfaces are becoming more common, it is important to improve effectiveness, accuracy and speed of earcons.

Designers need to ensure tactful and discreet use of sound and music within the design process, as sound and music have started playing bigger roles in operating user engagement in new and exciting ways. Earcons are wide-reaching and innovative resource for crafting user experience as well as voice experience in general. So, when your team is trying to resolve design and UX issues in a voice design, rather than only optimising voice, explore how interface can make better use of various earcons.

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Aditi Agarwal

Aditi crafts entrancing and mesmerizing user interfaces and experiences for global brands, including many Fortune 500 companies. She is a constant thinker and creative-o-holic who never fails to keep herself well informed about emerging design trends and new technologies. She ensures effective implementation of visual design strategies and thrives to follow design process in every project she executes.

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