Less is More Cowbell: Finding the OmniFocus Sound

by Michaela on December 1, 2010

Our devices have voices.

And they have these voices to let us know everything from "someone is trying to get in touch" to "it's your move in [popular letter-adorned tile placement game]". When they speak, it sometimes sounds like they're saying "FIRE!" when they mean to say "You've got some spam to delete, buddy." Sometimes it sounds like they're whispering "Hey, there are kittens batting at dandelions in a meadow." when they really mean "No, seriously, FIRE!" And more importantly, any sound that is repeated with enough frequency will turn itself into a distant peep that you ignore or an in-your-face racket that turns you into The Hulk.

These were the challenges we considered when creating a notification sound for OmniFocus for iPhone and iPad. The job of the OmniFocus notification sound is to alert you to items that are due. So not only is it an alert, but it's an alert that lets you know you have some work to do — talk about a potential double whammy of irk.

So how do we combat this? There are a few things that make sense to do: keep it short; make sure it's in a range suited for the device's speakers; don't repeat it a bajillion times; and make sure that its voice lands somewhere in between DEFCON One and DEFCON Fun.

This gets us pretty far. To take us the rest of the way, we relied on the comfort found in familiarity and a voice that says simply, "I have something for you."

Here comes the music theory:

For the enforcement of familiarity, we chose a chord that has the same root and inversion as a sound with which many of us are well-acquainted: the Mac start-up chime. (The low low fifth is eliminated to accommodate the device's speakers.) It's not likely that most people will be able to say "Hey, that's like the start-up sound!" or even have a conscious response to it, but it's ubiquitous enough that the sound should *ahem* strike a chord. To make sure we find the right words to say, and for further familiarity, we had the root come in a touch late. With the third on top, this creates the notion of a descending major third or the same ding-dong sound a doorbell makes. The timing is different, of course, to make sure you don't look at the door when OmniFocus tells you it's time to take the trash to the curb or your Really Big Project is due.

All that said, everyone's ears are conditioned differently and our hope is that, in the end, it's unobtrusive without being too shy. Really, we just want it to be useful. 

Thanks for taking a minute to read about our one-second sound. If any of this resonated with you, please take a listen and feel free to drop a note in the comments. (Might I recommend F#?)