The pleasure a hit of sound can hold
and how they hint at something bigger.
Our anxiety has reached an all-time high. This comes as no surprise, yet we still haven’t found the solution to address this issue properly, possibly because our mental health has become a chronic condition that demands more than just a couple of online meditation or therapy sessions. So, shall we dive in?
Unconventional Sounds are the new black
There are some consumer signals one just can’t ignore, the rise of audio is one of them. One of the great powers of audio is the feeling it can convey; the melody, the tone, the beat, the hums, and even the part where it goes silent, and your ears crave a sound again. Each sound, each in-between silence, each note represents a thousand words – the words that we can’t hear but we can feel.
Think of “functional sounds.” I know you must be sitting in front of your screen and nodding as this is nothing new, but if you look around, you will see how “sound therapy” is blooming in many new and surprising ways.
ASMR typically refers to the "tingly feeling" that travels from the head to that pinky toe on your left foot. It is a feeling that people experience in response to certain sounds, feelings or descriptions. To my surprise, ASMR is searched on Google 2M times per month (on average). This is seven times more than back in 2015. The r/ASMR was launched in 2011 but now it has over 230k users and has roared up 20 per cent in 2020.
Ambience videos are a variation of ASMR. The difference lies in the animated scenery that goes with the soothing soundscapes. The end goal is to make viewers feel immersed and included emotionally. It is a genre that has been exploding on YouTube since the beginning of the health crisis with people looking for an escape from the dull reality that roams around the walls of their homes. And for a little vava-voom, we have the #SoothingVoice trending topic on TikTok with over 9.9M views. You can experience this here (and save it for the next dull moment).
Lofi music, if you haven’t already, go on Spotify and listen to the “Wicked Story” lofi version. This genre blends traditional hip-hop and jazz. It’s another type that has gone wild in such a small period of time. Last December, it was searched 301K times on Google worldwide and it has more than doubled in two years. On Spotify, the "Lofi Fruits" playlist by indie record label Strange Fruits Music has generated almost 5M likes.
Dreampop, from the 1980s, described as "an atmospheric subgenre of alternative rock that relies on sonic textures as much as melody" is actually making a comeback. The r/Dreampop, created in 2011, has grown from 11,68K in august 2020 to 74K January 2021. Talk about Dreampop fans.
Look outside your window, it’s raining business opportunities
What’s exciting about looking into trends from a consumer perspective is that there is often a sweet spot for branding and marketing opportunities or to actually move on to build businesses. And the opportunities here are numerous:
Services like Brain.fm, Generative.fm and Noisli offer ambient generative music to help you focus, sleep or relax. Endel goes even further with their algorithm based on circadian rhythms and thus adapts sounds to different inputs such as the time of the day.
With the Passion Economy and the golden age of creators, it's just a matter of time before we see new tools emerging that empower people to give birth to new genres and ways of producing music and thus, generating UGC at scale.
Many brands are experimenting with soothing sound experiences as part of their content marketing strategies. Kaja, for instance, is an indie makeup brand that excels on TikTok. They use micro-videos to promote their products and show how to use them, but that's not all. If you listen closely, most of these videos use some ASMR techniques, emphasizing satisfying noises, like the noise of peeling the product’s blister security, which is enough to send tingles down your spine and make your ears itch a bit. One striking example here. In a similar vein, TikTok recently held a whistle challenge gathering over 400M views. No wonder: whistling is a well-known grab-and-go of stress relief tip.
The point here is that we are witnessing how just a few well-thought-out sounds are soothing us, almost in a subliminal way. The problem is that we haven't put thought into merging. Come closer, and tell me what will happen if we applied this same principle to our products and interfaces, seizing the opportunity of infusing and embedding more well-being at scale?
Let’s bring creativity – audio aesthetics on our interfaces
If you think about this from a design perspective, our goal these past years has been a race to do something that everyone is up to. Making our interfaces frictionless: fast, quick and straight to the point. We reached this point with flat design and digital minimalism. No offense intended to anyone, I am a part of it too.
In this quest for simplicity, many have become look-alikes or clones with better ear and eye shapes. It would be true to say that we have lost the battle of creating a strong emotional connection.
But things are starting to change, and UX Sound Design could bring back some feeling and dimension to our interfaces, notably through audio skeuomorphism.
I know you’ve finished that paragraph and you are still trying to say Skeu...what? Let me explain this: Skeuomorphism is a design concept in which items are made to resemble real-world counterparts, for audio it's a form of earconography. One good example of this is the Apple macOS trash can sound that translated the real-world noise of paper you crumple and throw in the dustbin. That’s what we call an “oddly satisfying” noise. UX sound is also haptic feedback, the natural sonic qualities of hapticity. But there is more than just texture and timbre to it as it also includes gestural intuition. Haven’t you ever been mesmerized by the hands of a piano player? The flow? The direction of the notes? And how freely they move as if gliding on water waves that can't be visible to the human eye? That’s also something that can be transcribed to interfaces.
Audio offers a sense of intimacy that is extraordinary. In the context of a health crisis and accelerated digital use, it is high time that we rethink the real power of functional audio, embedded across our digital interfaces. This is probably just one aspect of the experiential website trend I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, but it sure is an important one.
This quote from danish designer Michael Flarup (I also recommend his videos and keynotes)
"What I am saying, and what I have always said, is that design can be anything we want it to be. We should strive to make fun and memorable experiences that are appropriate to the context, but not arbitrarily restricted.
There’s a great deal of sameness in design these days and I think we can challenge that if we’re willing to let go some of the minimalist ideals and start thinking about how we can infuse our designs with fun. Start thinking about form instead of just function. Allow ourselves to embellish in the name of orchestrating an experience. Delight as a differentiating factor."