I’ll continue the theme of my previous post by looking at another product using sound design in a very creative and differentiating way. Skype, which shouldn’t need much of an introduction if you’re reading this blog, is the most popular voice over IP service out there and has amassed over 663 million registered users in its decade of existence. Redefining and disrupting the telephone industry is no small task, and Skype has used UI sounds in an integral way to claim its place as both the heir and future of the telephone.
Skype’s sounds are bubbly, textural, and playful, and many use a delay effect which adds a unique and fantastical element. According to Skype’s official brandbook, “The Skype tone of voice is unique… Humour is an important part of the Skype voice. We don’t tell one liners, but employ a gentle wit to engage our users.” While the brandbook doesn’t directly mention sound design, Skype has clearly done a good job in translating the intended voice of their brand into the realm of abstract interface sounds.
Their brandbook also mentions “As a company that enables people to talk for free, the speech bubble is a potent and unique symbol to Skype. We will own the speech bubble. Skype is a frenetic, energetic brand that is constantly moving.” The bubblyness of the sounds isn’t just to add energy and fun to the product experience, but to also literally reference to speech bubbles, Skype’s big brand metaphor for open communication.
Sounds Like a Telephone
Of Skype’s 27 user interface sounds, only 2 directly reference the very familiar tones of the telephone.
When a user initiates a call, they hear what sounds like an 8 digit number being dialed on a touch tone phone. This sound is played every time you make a call and the tones do not correspond to the number you’re dialing.
When your outgoing call is ringing, you hear the same tone as you would on a regular telephone, but with a slightly different rhythm.
Two sounds are a bit louder than the rest and have a repetitive rhythm designed to get your attention:
Skype’s Metaphoric Sounds
When you sign in, a textural and rising sound plays, signifying an upward or forward momentum that finishes with a high pitched bubble pop sound.
When you log out, a similar sound plays but in the opposite direction and ending with a lower pitched bubble pop sound.
When your partner hangs up, you hear one large bubble pop with the faint sound of a bell in the background – a subtle reference to older telephones which had actual ringing bells.
When you hang up, you hear the same sound as above, but with an extra bubble pop. This extra bubble signifies your partner who is now disconnected too.
Symbolic Sounds – Negative :-(
As we’ve seen many times before, descending pitches are almost always used to represent a negative action or some kind of downward momentum. Unsurprisingly, Skype uses descending pitch sounds for errors or unintended results:
Symbolic Sounds – Positive :-)
When something relatively positive happens, Skype’s sounds feature ascending pitches, which just about always signify something positive or a forward momentum.
Symbolic Sounds – Neutral :-|
Some of Skype’s sounds are purely symbolic and emotionally neutral, meaning that while they still fit into the overall sound palette, they are essentially arbitrary choices and don’t directly reference the action they have been chosen to represent.
All of Skype’s UI Sounds: