Where’s The Audio On Facebook?

Facebook’s F8 developer conference this year introduced us to their 10 year plan which, in short, includes lasers, satellites, bots, and more.

One of the lesser talked about points that Mark Zuckerberg touched on in his keynote was accessibility in the main Facebook product. He highlighted machine learning and AI as a way for visually impaired users to be told the contents of images uploaded to Facebook thanks to image recognition software.

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This seems like a neat feature that’ll go some way to helping the visually impaired consume Facebook, though doesn’t go very far in allowing publishing and contributing directly and the obvious medium for doing so is currently lacking from the current tools for status updates – audio.

At F8, Facebook put a large emphasis on live video and video publishing that audio appears to have been bypassed entirely.

Audio is an important medium, not just for accessibility. It’s one of the reasons why podcasts have become such a hot topic, why apps such as Anchor have become popular, and why Soundcloud is the de facto destination for audio sharing on the web.

Imagine a Facebook where you could publish your thoughts in verbal form (not dissimilar to Anchor), rather than a written status, share an infant’s first words with family members, or play your latest musical idea. This is inline with Facebook’s vision of allowing free expression on its platform and in keeping with allowing anyone to share anything there too.

In keeping with the latest trend of live, being able to broadcast live audio on Facebook would undoubtedly be beneficial to podcasts and musicians in better understanding their audiences thanks to Facebook’s trove of user data.

Sound Design Studies: Wunderlist

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Wunderlist doesn’t need much introduction. It’s one of the leading to-do and task manager apps, and was recently acquired by Microsoft in the summer of 2015.

It’s easy to attribute part of its success to the fact that, at its core, the product has remained the same throughout its lifespan. It’s simple and powerful which is everything a great app and service should be.

One of its other attractions, which brings me back to the topic at hand, is its design. It’s evident that there’s a strong design culture at Wunderlist, with details shared on the company blog upon new releases.

Where I was pleasantly surprised with Wunderlist, was in the implementation of sound within their product and there is, as far as I could find, only one sound and it’s found at a key interaction — checking off a task.

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Visually, you can see how this interaction plays out. Once the tick-box has been checked, the row fades away and any items below motion upwards simultaneously.

From just these visual cues a user can infer that the task has been completed. Simple enough.


If you’re someone that has the sound turned up on your device, or if you’ve got headphones in, then you’ll have also heard this sound accompany the interaction.

On first impressions, and as a general overview, it’s a metallic sounding major chord which can be unpicked further.

Firstly, it’s generally considered that major chords are associated with familiarity, stability, and, on the whole, positive feelings. Within the context of checking off completed tasks, this makes perfect sense as it’s here rewarding the completion of a task with a bright and positive sound.

There’s plenty of praise for it on Twitter too, so it’s obviously working wonders in reinforcing the users’ want to continue checking off tasks.

From a spectral analysis, the chime itself appears to be an E major triad — E, G#, B — which incidentally are the same notes that Big Ben chimes to as well. That fourth peak (and second highest) is another E, just an octave higher.

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According to Wunderlist’s own Twitter, the instrument used to help create the sound is a thumb piano or mbira, which is a family broadly characterised by a wooden body with resonant, metal tines.

https://www.twitter.com/wunderlist/status/671733019250528257

It’s an instrument of African origin, though the final version definitely sounds like it took some processing to isolate and emphasise the metallic characteristics.

It may stand to reason that using a metallic sound brings to mind medals and trophies which reinforces the idea of sound-as-reward.

In short, Wunderlist utilises sound with two specific goals:

  1. As feedback, letting you know when you’ve successfully checked off a task.

  2. As a positive reinforcement device by rewarding the user with a delightful sound.

The former is arguably the more practical reason to utilise sound as it reinforces the UI information of the interaction, at the same time as allowing the UI to be focused and concise.

Sound Can Be Sketched Too

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Sound is an inherently abstract and ephemeral medium. Yet the ways in which we try to convey the ideas we have when discussing it are equally, if not just as, abstract.

The challenge comes in trying to translate something that you’ve heard and communicate it through a different medium — usually spoken or written language. Excessive adjectives can only get you so far and this is in and of itself a slippery slope to traverse and one that can be fruitless in the end if this is part of a process to create and design sounds.

Sound design may appear to be an intimidating exercise to undertake — the task of creating an intangible something from nothing. However the processes and frameworks that can be used are not dissimilar from those used in creating visual content.

Sound can be sketched too

A sketch by its nature isn’t a finalised product, more like an idea that’s been committed to record with the intention of being iterated over. Much in the same way that a graphic designer might create, reflect, recreate, and iterate over a number of cycles until arriving at a final version, these same processes are applicable in sound design.

But how exactly do you go about sketching sound and what tools can be used? One of the best sound sketching tools isn’t software, or even a plug-in. It’s the human voice.

The voice can be an exceptional musical instrument and, as music is one subset of sound, it follows that the voice can be a versatile sound design tool and one well suited to the task of sketching sound. The human voice can vary pitch, intonation, timbre, amplitude, attack, decay, and other characteristics in producing a sound.

If the voice is the pen, then the recorder is the notebook and sketchpad — the stock Voice Memos app on your iPhone is a convenient yet unappreciated one. On it you can get your ideas and intentions down as quickly or as crudely or precicesly as you see fit, and if you’re feeling particularly adventurous try importing your recordings into Garageband or DAW of choice and experiment with manipulating your recordings further.

You can do this with EQ settings, filters, delays, or any number of combination of effects.

The best thing to do is to keep experimenting

With two basic tools you can begin to experiment and understand what sounds do and don’t work within a particular context, and begin to understand why. If you’re working on an app and are looking for interface sounds, it’s possible to quickly create numerous sounds that can be played back alongside your prototypes and mockups. You’ll quickly be able to marry the visual and audio in a cohesive and coherent manner.