Naming notification sounds

Content Design

At Zendesk, the sounds that notified customers of an incoming chat were long overdue for a change. I’d heard one described as a dying goose or a clown being stabbed.” We got feedback about them all the time:

Many of the preset sounds are piercing and unpleasant especially when using headphones.

The sound notification is very abrupt and not friendly at all. It’s a little alarming to be honest.

The oh oh’ default sound is not ideal.  I know it can be turned off, but something more subtle would be nice.

Eventually changing these sounds made it on to the product roadmap. They were crafted by a sound designer, and after our design system team landed on their top five options, they sent over the files to content design to name the tones. I picked up the project.

For context, the previous notification sounds were called:

There isn’t a consistent naming scheme here. There is onomatopeoia (“Oh oh”) mixed in with bare description (“Door knock”). And it didn’t feel great having two-word terms in there.

I knew I couldn’t do this myself. Sounds are abstract and the same noise can evoke different imagery and emotions depending on who’s listening. I plopped the sounds on to a Miro board and had the content design team plunk down suggestions asynchronously.

The working titles for the new sounds were:

Of course, naming is a highly subjective process. Naming sounds even more so. After all the names were in, I saw that a few names started to form themes. This felt like an opportunity. A theme would provide cohesiveness to the set of tones. It also gives us an opportunity to tell a story about how we want these tones to affect our user.

These were the final suggestions:

Birb Music box

As you can see, the same tones can be interpreted in two very different ways. As is common in content design, what matters more than an individual word is the broader story weaving everything together.