In contemplating the aesthetics of interaction design, beauty as defined by all five senses must be considered: Seeing, Hearing, Touching, Tasting, Smelling. And, I’m going to make that six senses by adding one more: Emoting. By which I mean a person’s psychological state in response to an interaction (if you have a better label for that, let me know; and why this isn’t already included in our list of senses, rather than the elusive, mysterious “sixth sense” I have no idea).
In terms of sound, I’ve experienced something interesting of late at the train station. As a twice a day Penn Line rider for almost two years, I became accustomed to the conductors at Penn Station in Baltimore who made announcements every morning as I was entering the station and then boarding the train. These were routine announcements, but in retrospect, a very important aspect of system feedback. The system being the whole Amtrak/MARC train system. Recently, however, Amtrak replaced these human announcers with an automated, computerized voice. Now, in addition to the voice being very choppy with unnatural intonations and rhythm, it lacks any of the regional linguistic flavor that indicates the rider is not only at a train station on the east coast, but at a train station in Baltimore specifically. Morosely, the voice also sounds like it’s coming from a dead person, or, worse yet, an emotionless psychopath. It’s rather creepy, really.
Obviously, this makes the experience of riding the train less pleasurable. Often, the conductors and announcers would make plays on words and creatively fluctuate the intonations of their voices: Aaaaaaaaaaaaaallll, a-board please! Undoubtedly to make their jobs more interesting: I’m sure it gets boring making the same announcements day after day after day. But for me, as a user of this system, the playfulness in their announcements, the lilt to their words, the smiles in their vowels, the distinctive pinch to their nasal ‘o’s (if you’ve ever been to Baldimer en down nee ayshin, hon, you’ll know what I’m talkin’ about) always made me smile. It was a personal touch. It was emotional design. And it made the user experience better.
Now, the computerized female voice with a neutral North American accent, machinized intonations, choppy syllables, and metallic rhythm strips all the emotive personality away. What riders are left with every time this fembot makes an announcement serves as an exclamation point to the feeling one tries to avoid when commuting by train everyday: that you’re just another cog in the machine, trodding to the coal mines for a day of numbing labor with the rest of unwashed masses.
The sad part is, like all aspects of good design, you don’t notice how good it was until it’s gone. Or worse yet, replaced with something ugly.