Product sound design session, February 15, at the Aalto Design Factory

Tools of the trade: Product Sound Design

We have completed another PSD session at the Aalto Design Factory. I am totally impressed by the interest, energy, and creativity of the participants, and by the outcomes, which clearly went beyond my expectations (and preparation, I should say).

Read more about the details of the session, feedback I have received, my reflections and some pointers.

The session

We went through the theoretical foundations, procedure, and examples of product sound design in the morning, as a lecture, between 09:15-11:45. We have defined various aspects of products, sounds, and design, and considered specific examples of product sound design, in consumer household appliances, automotive industry, and IT products. We have emphasized the communication with sound designers as a primary skill to develop in this session, and tied up this with the general listening strategy of non-specialist people: if they identify the source of the sounds they hear, they describe the source by causal relation. In case of an ambiguity (and for product sounds are usually ambiguous), they report the perceptual, and sometimes emotional attributes. A good pointer for this is:

  • Özcan, Elif. 2008. Product Sounds. Fundamentals & Application. PhD Thesis, TU Delft, the Netherlands.

We have proceeded with examples how this observation can be converted to a communication strategy. We have briefly reviewed the structured 6-steps procedure of the PSD we have followed at the 2010 Product Sound Design Summer School, and its outcomes. But we have left out the utilization of this procedure to the afternoon part.

After a long lunch break to digest both the food and the PSD theory, we have gathered in Puuhama for hands-on work. In the first 15 minutes of this period, we had a surprise guest, Dr. Tero Tolonen, who told us about his work at Nokia as Director of Smart Devices Product Portfolio, and emphasized the need for solid (sonic) interaction design.

We have then continued with a 4-quadrant analysis of product sounds, spanned by the axes {positive, negative} x {intrinsic, extrinsic}, forming a small productography (check a more detailed one here). We have discussed the opportunities and challenges for selected products and their sounds. We have then concentrated on our running example: an electric toothbrush. We have analyzed how the intrinsic sound (and vibration) is manipulated to indicate the timing in use, and kicked-off a vocal sketching session to match the electric toothbrush sound with perceived product attributes. The primary reference on vocal sketching is

  • Ekman, Inger, and Michal Rinott. 2010. “Using Vocal Sketching for Designing Sonic Interactions.” In The 8th ACM Conference, 123–131. New York, New York, USA: ACM Press. <doi:10.1145/1858171.1858195>.

Then we have proceeded to a conceptual design phase, and made an action-sound analysis, and developed concepts for an extended product, in groups. Four brilliant ideas and several variations came out:

  1. a context-aware toothbrush that modifies its sound during action, since the group felt the original design was unnecessarily loud and unpleasant
  2. an expressive toothbrush that changes its timbre and pitch around various teeth-groups, so you can compose and master little tunes. This conceptual design taps into our cognitive abilities to remember the musical pieces, which in turn guides our actions so that each teeth group is properly cleaned.
  3. a similar design was proposed by another group, but they thought about piano tunes. As an alternative, they brought up that the condition of gums and teeth at various parts of the mouth, detected by an extra sensor, can actively control the bristle stiffness, and the interaction can be sonified by a friction model. Then you would be both aware of the condition of your teeth and gums, and be ensured that their hygiene is properly taken care of. They had yet another idea, but I leave it out for fairness to other groups (they had more members).
  4. The most radical conceptual redesign is a small autonomous robot that goes into your mouth, and takes care of your cleaning for you! And it sonifies its operations, because you don’t see it. I think about the small cleaning robot in Wall-E, and smile 🙂

Wov! Yay! I was prepared to proceed to the embodied design phase with mock-ups consisting of Wiimotes and manual toothbrushes taped to them, and physical computing to drive the Wiimote vibro-motor continuously by Pulse Width Modulation, as described here:

  • Erkut, Cumhur, Antti Jylhä, M Karjalainen, and E Altinsoy. 2008. “Audio-Tactile Interaction at the Nodes of a Block-Based Physical Sound Synthesis Model.” In Proc. Workshop on Haptic and Audio Interaction Design, Jyväskylä, Finland.

This time, smartphones would control the mapping of continuous acceleration and buttons to audio-tactile feedback. But the conceptual designs, especially 3 & 4, would require a more sophisticated synthesis engine, such as the Sound Design Toolkit, as described here:

  • Delle Monache, Stefano, Pietro Polotti, and Davide Rocchesso. 2010. “A Toolkit for Explorations in Sonic Interaction Design.” In Proc. Audio Mostly Conf., 7–13. Piteå, Sweden.

Note that we have used SDT in PSD training (thanks Stefano), and I have the toolkit up and running on my computer. But I plainly did not expect that we’d go that far. This, combined with the tiredness of the participants and the advancing time, made us rethink the embodied design phase, so we have skipped it and proceeded to construct a brand identity for the conceptual designs (we’d usually do it with the embodied design, since it can be experienced and evaluated). We have followed the guidelines in

  • Treasure, Julian. 2011. Sound Business: How to Use Sound Grow Profits and Brand Value. 2nd ed. Gloucestershire, UK: Management Books 2000 Ltd.

We have ended the session with feeback from the participants.

Feedback and reflections

The participants have returned 12 filled forms. This number is unfortunately less than the total number of participants; here is the link to the online form (active for a week) for those who did or could not return it:

The overall rating of the session was 4.17 on a scale of [1-5]. From the ratings and comments, I understand that, while there is an improvement on the workshop content and material compared to previous sessions, I need to work on the timing and examples, especially in the hands-on part. And we have to collectively think about the workload in the course.

Nevertheless, I am satisfied about the transformative nature of the session, as expressed in the comments, e.g.,

  • (Gave a) new perspective to focus on when designing.
  • In terms of brand development, I usually consider the service design and visual design. But I was able to get another way to concrete brand identity.
  • It was also nice to start the concept from the “sound” part, which brings us to completely radical ideas we would not have thought about.

Thank you, all participants, warmly! You rock, and went way over my expectations. And I regret that we needed to skip the embodied design part, it would have been so nice to work with you more on this. Perhaps we could schedule the PSD session after PD6 next time, so we’d suspend our disbelief that the mock-ups, quick & dirty prototypes of PSD, cannot be done in a single afternoon session. Or perhaps, we just need more time.

Thanks Eetu for the opportunity, Tero for your guest appearance, Jussi and George for solving practical problems of the infrastructure, Stefano, Daniel, and Inger, and other tutors of the 2010 PSD Summer School for the ideas and material.