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Northwestern University

Students in "Designing Product Interactions" Listen Closely

Think about the last time you used an app on your smartphone. Did you hear a beep or chime when you swiped to a new feature?

Chances are there was careful attention given to the precise characteristics of the sound you heard. That attention is called sound design and it was the subject of a day-long workshop for students in both the MA in Sound Arts and Industries at Northwestern’s School of Communication and students enrolled in Designing Product Interactions, a graduate course offered by the Segal Design Institute as part of the Engineering Design Innovation (EDI) program.

The workshop was led by Steve Milton, founder and CEO of Listen. Listen is an award-winning creative company helping brands grow through applications of music and sound. Listen has worked with corporate clients such as Microsoft, Tinder, Spotify, Skype, Virgin, and Audi among others. Milton was trained as a musicologist at the New England Conservatory of Music and today he works at the intersection of music and marketing in the emerging industry of sound design.

“One of the interesting things about sound design is that it’s often overlooked when you think about user experience or product design,” explained Milton. “When you’re designing anything, if it’s a digital product or a physical product, sound is a big part of the user experience. It can play a big role in user-feedback.”

During the workshop, students were challenged to create “the sound of Northwestern University." After Milton provided them with an overview of the concept of a brand sound and walked them through the tools at their disposal, the students were split into multidisciplinary teams with representatives from the Designing Product Interactions course and the Sound Arts and Industries program on each one. Then they got to work, brainstorming and composing while Milton offered guidance.

Near the end of the workshop, the teams presented their work to the whole group. One duo comprised of Theresa Thao Nguyen, from the Sound Arts and Industries program, and Philip Chehade, a second year in the EDI program, decided that Northwestern sounded like optimism and ambition.  

“We asked ‘How can we convey optimism?’ and we thought we’ll do that through the tone,” said Thao Nguyen. They looked to blues songs from Chicago for inspiration.

Chehade added, “Then we were talking about the tone of ambition. We wanted to simulate that tone through a lot of chords and triads that are grander, like in an orchestra, because we wanted something that had resonance. So, then we put together a chord structure of what we thought would work.”

Their final result included handclaps, a driving beat created by a piano played in the blues style, and a chorus of students shouting “Northwestern” in unison.

Multidisciplinary collaboration was one of the primary reasons behind the organization of the workshop.

Craig Sampson, an adjunct professor at Segal Design Institute who co-teaches Designing Product Interactions, said “The opportunity to collaborate with people who have very different backgrounds was a primary motivator. [The School of Communication students] know sound. Our students know the design process. Mixing those up was what the day was all about.”

Jacob Smith is the director of the Sound Arts and Industries program, a new one-year Master of Arts program offered by Northwestern. He saw this workshop as a unique opportunity for all of the students participating.

“What I hope will happen is that this is an ear-opening workshop,” said Smith. “Sound is becoming more and more important as brands are experienced across platforms. It becomes this kind of glue that unifies those experiences.

He continued, “I hope the engineering students walk away thinking ‘Maybe we do have something to learn from talking to musicians, sound designers, and composers.’ And I think it is great for our students to engage with other very smart, savvy students that are coming from a different perspective and see how their own expertise in sound might fit into a project like this. I think it’s a win-win.”

Ellie Pearlman, a second year in the EDI program enrolled in Designing Product Interactions, agreed.

“The most fun part was working with teams, particularly actually building the sound because I’ve never done that before,” she said. “We would talk about different parts of Northwestern and [our teammate from the School of Communication] would be like ‘Oh yeah, that reminds me of strings and high pitches and fast tempos.’ It’s magic to me!”

Aubrey Kraft, also a second year in the EDI program, said she too learned a lot from working with students from the School of Communication.

“The [School of Communication] students think about things in a very different way. They’re thinking in sound and music,” she said. “They’re like ‘Every little thing matters, even the beat of this music or the timing of it or just that one tone or how it ends.’ I got to learn a lot more about sound from them.”

In his own work at Listen, Milton sees a greater purpose to sound design that he tried to convey to the students in the workshop.

“We need to be thoughtful about not polluting with the world with more useless sound,” he asserted. “We need to make the world sound better and in doing that we need to be thoughtful around when are we using sound, how are we using sound, and making sure that both the product and experience are made better.”

Milton's workshop connected directly to the focus on human-centered design that is central for students at the Segal Design Institute.

“In our language, we use tone to communicate meaning and those tones affect our understanding," said Sampson. "I hope the [Designing Product Interactions] students are able to translate what we did in the workshop into thinking about the consequential sounds around us and the sounds of products. So that when they’re designing – whether it’s a physical product and there’s a little box that closes and it goes ‘click,’ or whether it’s an app and they’re swiping to a new screen – that they’re now thoughtful about what is the appropriate sound to both communicate the action as well as support the mood that they want to have.”

Pearlman said she was definitely able to make the translation between what she learned about sound design in the workshop and her coursework in Designing Product Interactions.

“It definitely connects to everything,” she said. “Any touch point you have with the user is really important. I think we focus a lot on visuals, but the auditory feedback you get, even if it’s just the sound an object makes because of its material selection or the noises that an app makes, is really important to give that person the proper feeling.”

Kraft even envisioned a direct connection to her thesis project for the EDI program.

“My thesis is doing a voice-controlled system to aid the visually-impaired in baking. Some of what we learned yesterday, I can apply to thinking about the tone of voice that I’m using to deliver different aspects of a recipe,” she explained. “I hadn’t really thought before about incorporating sounds into that, but now I’ve started thinking ‘What sounds would give feedback to somebody who is working through these steps all based on talking and listening?’”

While the sound design workshop only lasted one day, Sampson and Smith expressed hope that the impact would reverberate far longer than that.

“We hope the students walk out of this workshop and never hear the world the same again,” said Sampson.

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