An earcon is a brief, characteristic, harmonized, and structured sound representing a specific event or conveys other information. These are common features of computer operating systems and applications, ranging from a simple beep to indicate an error to modern operating systems’ customizable sound schemes that indicate startup, shutdown, and other events.
An earcon is audio identical to an icon that we hear all day while performing our tasks to increase the usability of the system or device that we are using.
The difference between Earcons and Auditory Icons
An auditory icon is a brief sound used to represent a specific event, object, function, or action. The sound uses natural everyday sounds and takes advantage of the user’s prior knowledge and natural auditory associations between sounds and the event. Consequently, if the sound evokes the associated sound of an object or action, it is classified as an auditory icon.
Examples of Auditory Icons
We find auditory icons when emptying the trash on our Mac or locking our iPhone. Both of these sounds mirror the action in the real world.
Earcons are structured sounds, defined as an audio sound/message representing a specific event or conveying other information and feedback to the user. However, Earcons differ from Auditory Icons in that earcons are generally synthesized tones or sound patterns and have no direct relationship to the event. They are only used as a representation of the event.
Examples of Earcons
Examples of earcons can be the sound our iPhone makes when we type a message or the indication of a misspelled word in user input. It can also be the ‘swoosh’ sound you hear when an email is sent.
Advantages of Earcons and Auditory Icons
Earcons and Auditory Icons allow for quick information transmission and provide us with a tangible confirmation of the action performed. In a world saturated by visual stimulus, earcons make it possible to supplement our visual sense with the aural or even replace it where visual confirmation is not possible.
Earcons and auditory icons can quite often become synonymous with the brand in popular software and technology. Even with today’s rapid technology improvements, more and more products are making sound, and so, audio functions as a memorable link to the brand and thereby reinforces brand identity and association.
Additionally, as voice user interfaces are becoming more common, it has become essential to improve the effectiveness, accuracy, and speed of earcons.
Designing the Earcons
Sounds that are designed with the brand and functionality in mind enhance the immersion and overall user engagement.
The first step in creating the earcons is to establish your brand’s sound DNA. This requires strategically approach to produce sounds that are unique and recognizable by your customers and constituents.
The second step is to define and match the specific event or message to the earcon. For example, is it an error message, a reminder, or confirmation of a task?
Types of Earcons
There are four types of earcon structures.
These are the simplest earcons that are used to transmit a tiny bit of information. These earcons can only be single pitch or have rhythmic attributes, for example, save and open.
These are created by linking together one-element or any other form of earcons to create more relevant messages.
These are formed around ‘grammar’ where each earcon is a branch of a tree and each branch receives all the properties of the branches above it in the tree.
These are also formed around ‘grammar’, but to understand them, only the rules by which earcons are formed need to be learned.