We Can Hear What’s Next

How sound opens a new world of design

Featured in Creativity
We Can Hear What’s Next

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We already live in the future of sound. Our media have changed. 2016 was the first year streaming accounted for more than downloads, CDs, and vinyl sales combined, according to NME. Our hardware has changed too, as TechCrunch reports that voice-enabled smart speakers are on pace to reach 55 percent of U.S. households by 2022.

Our homes, our cars, and our workplaces will soon be defined in large part by sound. What does that mean for creative work, and design in particular? And what challenges and opportunities await us in our noisy future? Let’s take a look at some of the hardware and software that’s going to shape the future of sound.

Speakers that disappear

The story of music in the home is the story of hardware. And that starts, as with so many things in America, with Thomas Edison. In 1877, he invented the phonograph and changed music forever.

Before Edison’s phonograph, music was confined to live performance. Edison’s invention allowed music to make its way into physical media. It became replicable, mass-producible, and portable. The rest, from the first Victrola to the Napster era, is history.

But there was an interesting side effect: it changed the way we designed our homes. We invested in sound systems and record cabinets. We oriented our spaces around sound in the same way you organize a room to maintain good sight lines to your television.

Until recently.

Now, with streaming services giving us unprecedented variety and better, more affordable hardware, we are free to reimagine our spaces with speakers that fit almost anywhere.

Take Sonos. According to Strategy Analytics, the high-end speaker company is jockeying with Amazon in the competitive wireless speaker market, and they aim to separate themselves from Amazon’s more functional speakers with a design that caters to music lovers.

Like all good designers, Sonos puts its users at the center of its processes. One of the ways it does that is by fading into the background. “We want [our speakers] to be well-placed and almost to disappear within your home,” says Allen Mask, vice president of marketing, intelligence and partnerships at Sonos, when we caught up with him at Adobe MAX.

This is a leap from the old record console days. Now people can play any song in any room at any time. That amount of possibility means design is more important than ever to Sonos. “We have more design teams than a lot of companies,” Mask says. “And they’re core to whichever part of the process they’re assigned to, from the idea, to the concept stage, all the way to getting the thing to market.”

Sonos uses multiple disciplines — industrial design, lifestyle design, graphic design, packaging — to anticipate users’ experiences and make products that fit seamlessly into our lives. That simple, frictionless experience is one part of the future of music — we’ll be able to call up any song we want whenever we want to hear it.

But music is only one part of the future of sound, and Sonos knows it. With its new Sonos One, which features Alexa support, Sonos is entering into the voice UI space, where software has surpassed hardware as the next great frontier in sound.

The computer you can talk to

While it’s not as sexy as VR or AI, voice interaction is one of the biggest technological advances of the last decade. For the first time we’ve seen truly conversational software enter a lot of people’s homes without a visual interface. Experts believe this is one of the first steps toward a more natural, continuous relationship between computers and users.

“I think the future will be all those voice assistants talking to each other, whether you’re talking to them via a visual interface or a voice interface,” Brooke Hawkins, a conversational interface designer based out of Chicago, says. “[The system] will remember things about you to make those interactions seamless across all the ways you interact with it.”

But Hawkins is quick to point out that the technology is still in its infancy. Use cases are still in silos. Users interact with voice at home and in the car, and simple commands — like weather and traffic — still dominate the market. No one has cracked the continuous digital assistant experience, and that, Hawkins says, is where voice is ultimately headed.

What’s holding voice back? Part of it is the interface itself. Because there’s no visual language to guide users, voice UI must be clear and direct while still maintaining flexibility to respond to a number of different commands and a number of different modes of command — from short requests to longer, more conversational inputs.

Even more than visual UX or web UI, designing for voice requires a user-centered philosophy. We understand spoken language — the intonations and context — long before we can read. So unclear meaning, odd phrasing, and confusing directions stick out more than they would on a poorly designed site.

Despite those speed bumps, true voice integration is closer than ever, and monetization is right around the corner. To capitalize on that, designers are using tools like Adobe Analytics to refine voice experiences. With Adobe Analytics, designers can track user paths, flag trouble areas, and refine flow, ensuring users get the best experience. It also allows designers to target users — remembering their favorite sports team, for instance — to give them a more personalized experience.

This raises the question of trust, something all new tech must grapple with. Some people still aren’t comfortable with a microphone in their homes. Others, like Hawkins, are quick to point out the biases engineered into every piece of software and hardware, down to the personality of the digital assistant. “What kind of things does that enforce about how we think women should be task keepers or schedulers in the household?” she asks. “How is that personality perhaps something that leaves people out?”

These questions and more will define the arc of voice, music, and media in our homes, cars, and workplaces. It’s an exciting, challenging time. It’s not often we get to shape what the future sounds like.

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