From the hated alarm clock to the foxes getting it on at night, everyday we experience every kind of sound imaginable. The natural and man-made world around us uses sounds ranging from squeaks to crescendos in order to tell us everything from where danger is to how we should feel emotionally. Unfortunately sound seems to be the last tool that web designers reach for.

It isn’t because it’s hard, the web is a multimedia platform, audio tags in HTML5 have made it even simpler to create rich audio applications. I figure that it’s worth exploring why the web is a very quiet place and what needs to change to make it sound better?

Exclusions (just to be clear)

I’m not talking about videos, music sites or things that advertise the above, although there are brilliant examples that have been around for years, see Arcade Fire’s 2011 site. I’m thinking about the websites that mix audio, visual, and interaction, because audio is an extremely powerful tool that can engage people on an emotional level within just seconds of hearing something.

Why did sound get left behind?

1. It’s annoying

Sound as interaction on the surface seems like it could be quite annoying, this fanfare is pretty bad (and brilliant at the same time), but look in the right places, the audio is so well constructed that it slips into the landscape; the award-winning-web-designers-favourite adds a beautiful piano line and bird song underneath the gritty Kennedy and Oswald story.

Games have a sound for every interaction; they draw us through every stage with positive chimes and let us know when we’ve done wrong with the odd 8-bit squelch. In addition to this, the music is designed to adapt to the intensity of the imagery on screen, each music score is created to build and drop with every decision the user makes. Apps are more than happy to tell you that they’re “best enjoyed with headphones”, if you want to engage people with an experience, then let them know that is what they’re in for.

2. People don’t know it’s there

Generally this happens when it’s too late, either the audio blurts out at an inappropriate time or it simply gets overlooked, this is because there isn’t a standard across the web for audio. Applications have settings panels, games have pause menus, but I think the web could benefit from a simple inline control in the header, this would be enough to inform people that there is audio available and that they are in control.

3. Multimedia speakers are really bad

You have to consider what it will be heard on, even if it’s a tiny phone speaker the consideration should be, what can be done, before deciding not to do anything. The key is to not worry too much about the things you can’t control; Hollywood directors make sure that their audio is crafted to create the best experience, this scene in Inception isn’t brilliant through laptop speakers but you can still feel the intended emotion regardless,

What to do?

This is a top level view, I think there’s a lot more to consider but as a start, simply thinking about sound can make things better, could a checkout transaction be enhanced with a positive sound? Would users be moved by a by a piece of accompanying music? I think that so long as users know what to expect and have control, there’s no reason why not consider it. This is a brilliant example of what is possible that was sent round by one of the team, it contains no images or text, only audio

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