Before TiVo was released in 1999, recording anything on TV required a VCR and a blank VHS tape. Or, maybe a used VHS tape with an old episode of Family Matters you didn’t mind recording over. Pausing live TV? That was just crazy science fiction fantasy that only wizards had the power to do. Needless to say, TiVo was one of the more significant innovations in television’s history, and these days it’s hard to even remember a time when pausing a live show, fast forwarding through commercials, and recording anything you’d like weren’t an integral part of just about every cable package.
As with any disruptive technology or truly new idea, users and potential customers need to be educated and familiarized with a new array of thoughts and behaviors. TiVo addressed this challenge by creating an interface that, relative to the other set top boxes of time, was especially unique and easy to use, and has a personality that is “friendly, approachable, simple, and smart” . Their user interface sounds reinforce these qualities and go a long way in helping communicate the features and various states of the product.
For anyone who has ever used a TiVo, or been in a room where one was used, I’m sure you can easily recognize TiVo’s distinctive “ba-doop” sound . Over half of of TiVo’s UI sounds are based off of this distinctive “ba-doop” timbre, a pitched and percussive “pop” sound with a gentle attack. The sound itself doesn’t reference any literal action that the user is taking (which makes it a symbolic sound), but through varying the rhythm and pitch, TiVo uses this abstract sound to very efficiently communicate a majority of the product’s states and actions.
Let’s start with the most simple and most heard of TiVo’s sounds – the focus change sound.
Over the course of a very short 40 milliseconds, this note (an Eb) gives the user feedback that their input was received and that the on screen focus is changing. It’s the simplest sound TiVo uses, and the other ba-doop sounds acquire their meaning by building on and varying this sound.
The selection sound is the same sound as the focus sound, but two notes are played instead of one and higher pitches are used – a Gb up to a Bb. As we’ve seen many times now, ascending pitches in UI sounds almost always imply an upward or forward momentum, which is exactly what the user is doing when they make a selection and move ahead to a new section.
Navigating back is essentially the opposite of making a selection – you are going to where you were before instead of moving ahead to somewhere new. The two pitches chosen for the back sound communicate this very efficiently. The sound starts on the same note as the selection sound (a Gb) but is followed by a lower note instead of a higher note (an Eb), which inherently implies a backward or downward momentum.
Moving ahead further in time by fast forwarding also follows this convention, where ascending pitches are used to communicate each of TiVo’s three fast forward speeds. The sound for the first fast forward speed uses the familiar ba-doop sound and rhythm, starting with the TiVo focus sound (an Eb) and moving up to a higher note (a Gb). By adding a note after it, the focus sound acquires a different meaning, as ascending pitches imply forward movement.
When the user presses the fast forward button again, they move to the second fast forward speed, which is is communicated via even higher pitches (and thus a faster speed) than the first. This sound starts on the last note of the first fast forward speed (a Gb) and it’s second note is a higher pitch (an Ab).
The third fast forward speed, as you might expect now, starts on the second note of the previous speed (an Ab) and moves up to a higher pitch (a Bb) to communicate the fastest of the fast forward speeds.
MUSICAL INSTRUMENT SOUNDS
While there is a real beauty in the simplicity of the ba-doop sounds, TiVo veers off course with their four remaining UI sounds, which all use the sounds of musical instruments. With nearly half of the product’s UI sounds using a different sound palette than the other half, this inconsistency potentially confuses users and is a missed opportunity to strengthen and unify the personality of the product. It also doesn’t help that these musical instrument sounds don’t sound like musical instruments – they sound like low quality samples of musical instruments from a keyboard, which would make sense given that they were made in the late 1990s.
When the user reaches the end of bounds (e.g. trying to navigate down when on the last item of a menu), a timpani sound, also known to TiVo users as the “bonk” is heard. Since all other navigation sounds use the ba-doop sound, it makes absolutely no sense to use this jarring and almost comedic drum sound for an action that is also connected to navigation. When an error occurs or a users actions are impeded in any way, the best user experience is always one that is graceful and friendly; this sound is quite the opposite and is essentially the UI sound equivalent of shouting “NO!” in the user’s ear.
After something has finished downloading, the user hears a ding from a metal xylophone. While this sound isn’t consistent with most of the product’s other ba-doop sounds, it does successfully communicate that something has completed – the ding sound has been associated with “done” ever since a bell was added to a timer (which was actually in 1926 ).
When the user rates a program with the thumbs up button, a pitched ding is also heard. This sound has a slightly different timbre and is a bit less percussive that the finished downloading sound, but it’s the same pitch (a Bb). Why, when they have every note of every instrument in an orchestra to choose from, would TiVo use such similar sounds to represent two different things?
Lastly, when a user rates a program with the thumbs down button, a plucked note (a C) from an upright bass is heard. Since thumbs up and thumbs down are two related actions, their sounds should ideally imply this connection, and that is of course not the case here.