Human Factors and… Sound Design

Today we start a new series of interviews where we talk with different specialists associated with Human Factors and User Experience Design. The idea is to find out how HF Specialists are perceived by other disciplines, where our interests overlap, and how we can work better together to improve the design of products and services for all.

Our first interview is with Gareth Worthy a Sound Designer working in audio post-production and music and sound design for video and film. Gareth has advised us on a number of projects where sound and the auditory environment were important user experience considerations. We caught up with Gareth to get his views on sound design, in particular on the Human Factors of audible alarms and using sound to enhance the user experience in public places.

Some of our readers might not have realised that sound design is a profession! Could you describe what a sound designer does?

A sound designer is the person responsible for all (non musical) sound creation for specific projects. I generally work in audio for broadcast. My role as a sound designer would involve creating the non musical sounds that you would see on screen. That could be anything from making animated characters come to life, robotic movements, adding ambiences or foley sounds, such as footsteps and other natural sounds.
Within the industrial world a sound designer would be responsible for sound creation of a wide range of applications, it could be the “ping” of an elevator door opening, an alarm sound or the confirmation sounds of a self service checkout.

Do you think that the role of sound design in public places like stations and airports might change post COVID-19?

I think there is a possibility for this to happen. My thoughts are that some tasks that are normally performed by humans could become much more automated. Any type of task such as an airport check-in may become fully automated. Whilst using the systems the user would encounter a wide range of sounds such as human voices in the form of instructions, confirmation sounds when tasks are completed, error sounds when processes are incorrect and many more. There are so many changes happening across the world at the moment I think it’s quite difficult to predict how this will change.

What sort of sound design mistakes do you see in public places, like public address systems or door opening chimes, for example?

From my perspective the worst and most common would be the use of public address systems. I’m sure everyone can relate to being on the underground and the PA is so badly distorted you have no idea what it is saying. It’s certainly what I notice the most and always falls into three categories, too loud, too quiet or distorted/generally poor quality and inaudible.

From a sound design point of view, what makes a good audible alarm?

We have learned experiences of what alarms sound like (car alarm, fire alarm, alarm clock), so we need to work within an existing framework for it to be understood as an alarm.
There are two main aspects to this, pitch and amplitude. Firstly pitch or tone. An alarm needs to alert someone enough to trigger a specific response, such as complete a task. Generally speaking we all know what a fire alarm sounds like, if we changed the sound of the alarm to a calming harp sound we can all agree that it wouldn’t have the same effect. The same can be said for amplitude. It must be loud enough to be heard and prompt a response, but not so loud as to completely disorientate the subject. A balance of these is required.

How could people achieve this? (make a good audible alarm)

I think there are two aspects to consider, one is the actual alarm sound production, the other is the delivery system. The first steps must be to do the correct research on human response to frequency and amplitude, once you have this work alongside a sound designer to ensure that the source material is of a high quality. The second aspect is quite self explanatory. The delivery system (PA, Speaker etc) must be able to reproduce the alarm in a sufficient quality to be effective.

Why do you think that people ignore sounds or audible alarms sometimes? (I see that happen a lot)

We have already spoken about poor delivery systems so I won’t speak about that again but it’s certainly an aspect. An alarm that is not “alarming enough”, so I would class that as poor design. I think repetition would play a part in people ignoring alarms. If an alarm was sounding many times I think it would become ignored. Finally I think that if the alarm is not deemed important or dangerous enough by the listener, it would also lead to being ignored.

For anyone that has an audio aspect to their project, would you have one piece of advice for them?

It would be not to overlook the audio aspect of a project or leave it to the last minute. In my experience audio is often left until the last moment. Audio can provide such an important element to any project and giving the professionals who work with it enough time to really produce great results should be important to any company.

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