Designing experiences for the ears


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Are you designing for appearance or for experience? In a brilliant TED Talk by Julian Treasure – Why Architects need to use their ears he argues that far too many people far too often design only for the visual appearance (i.e. for the eyes) and not for the experience (including the ears). The noise level affects our health, productivity and social behaviour and is an important factor to consider when designing for the experience.

Apple became the latest company to disregard the acoustics when designing their new store in their home town of Palo Alto, California and that may prove an embarrassing and costly mistake. The company reportedly spent more than £15m on it but reviews show it has a mixed impact on the senses — beautiful to the eyes but complete torture to the ears. The media also picked on this issue with the Guardian and running articles on customers saying they can only spend two minutes inside before the noise becomes “unbearable”. When people measured it the noise level exceeded 75 decibels whilst the maximum level of noise beyond which you risk hearing loss and other disruptive effects from noise, such as sleep disturbance, stress, learning detriment, etc. is 65-70 dB.

We at Beyond Philosophy have long advocated that when designing an experience you need to consider all human senses e.g. sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing. Our 4th definition of what Customer Experience is about states:

A Customer Experience is an interaction between an organization and a customer.

It is a blend of an organization’s physical performance, the senses stimulated and emotions evoked

Each of these is intuitively measured against customer expectations across all moments of contact.

Here is what Julian says about the experience for the ears. First of all, it’s primarily subconscious. Sound is affecting us even though we are not conscious of it. In business environment office planners should also consider the noise levels. For example you don’t want to put a team that needs quietness in order to be creative or do their job next to a team that is quite noisy. Noise at offices could make employees less helpful, less enjoying their team work and also less productive.

Noise is also a very important factor to be taken into account by the healthcare and education sectors. In hospitals it does not also affect patients’ sleep, which is very important for people to get better but also the accuracy of the work of healthcare staff. This could also be a factor by which ordinary people may judge the quality of the hospital. As they can’t really judge by the quality of the physicians they get treated by other than how nice they were to them, they use subtle clues to judge the quality of the hospital – e.g. the noise, the cleanliness etc.

In education, as noise levels go up students will have to do more to capture what has been said and means they will miss more of it. On the other side the higher the noise, the higher the heartbeat of teachers which poses risks to their health.

The good news is there are ways to deal with the noise by using acoustic treatment and sound absorbing materials. And tests show that it’s not only the experience but also the results improve when noise levels are reduced.

In Apple’s case the sound problem stems from a combination of the elongated “Great Hall”, parallel walls, and reflective building materials. The visually striking glass roof becomes a veritable parabolic sound mirror. There isn’t a square inch of sound-absorbing material in the entire place.

Some industries that have understood the influence of the hearing sense on our buying behaviour are the supermarkets and retailers. In an experiment done by three academics, North, Hargreaves and McKendrick (1997) in which they played stereotypical German and French music along with the corresponding country´s wine in a more prominent display shelf. Subsequently sales of each country´s wine increased dramatically. Furthermore, when the authors interviewed the consumers after they had bought the wine, the majority of customers did not notice that the music could have influenced their buying decisions.

In another experiment conducted by Yalch and Spangenberg (1990) throughout wine stores across the U.S. they found that when classical music was played compared to recent chart music, consumers consistently spend more. Supermarkets also know that when they can speed up the tempo of the music to encourage people to shop faster (for example when the shop is about to close) or slow it down to make people at ease to spend more time looking at products.

Are you taking into account the sense of hearing when designing your experience? Tell us your stories and which companies you think are best at designing for the ears.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Zhecho Dobrev
Zhecho Dobrev is a Senior Consultant at Beyond Philosophy with 7 years of management consultancy experience and more than10,000 hours devoted to becoming an expert in customer experience management. He has worked with a wide range of sectors and countries. Some of his clients includeCaterpillar, FedEx, American Express, Heineken, Michelin etc. Zhecho's expertise includes conducting customer research on what drives customer behavior, journey mapping, customer complaints, measurement, training and more. He holds an MBA and Master's degree in International Relations.


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