A silent web

October 7 2014

Sometime during the last decade the web fell silent. There was a time when Flash-based websites with autoplaying background music were commonplace and the Internet felt like a lively, noisy place to be.

Fast forward to the present day and websites have turned quiet apart from certain media elements like video where the user can give explicit permission to play.

Whilst I believe this is better than websites that continuously sing at the user on an autoplaying loop, I think we maybe went too far in the condemnation of all forms of audio on the web.

Consider audio as component of the user interface for a moment: what’s wrong with using a sound like pips to represent hovering on menu options?

Advantages

  • Potentially good for accessibility where blind and partially sighted users might struggle to see a hover state
  • The sound could form part of the look and feel of the experience
  • And additionally it can help with other facets of the experience like helping a user feel a sense of achievement after completing a task

Disadvantages

  • The user is accustomed to a quiet web and the sound could come as an unwelcome shock
  • From an accessibility standpoint - there would need to be some sort of standard to indicate hover states which could confuse blind and partially sighted users

When audio was mainstream on many websites it was during a time where volume controls were disconnected from the device - potentially hidden on part of a CRT monitor or detached on external speakers. This was likely a source of frustration where you would have to move from a comfortable position to turn down the volume. Today we are well accustomed to use devices with mute buttons when we don’t want our apps to make any noise - the same applies to desktop for the most part where mute buttons are part of the keyboard functions. Audio has a definitive off switch should the user choose to opt out of all audio, and I’d wager that most folks know that if they want their device to be quiet - they’ll put it in silent mode (or mute for laptops and desktops).

Why should apps get all the fun of satisfying interface chirps and clicks when flowing through the experience? What if the games industry decided to go quiet in regards to their main menu systems? Both industries are trying achieve the same goal: to facilitate the user in completing a task. The game and app industries have audio as an integral part of UX whereas our industry opted to avoid it in recent years.

I think we wrote off audio too soon.