When I pulled down on my Twitter feed last night, just as I do hundreds of times a day, something was different.
Initially, I wondered whether it was my stomach, or a particularly loud sound effect escaping from the headphones of my girlfriend, who was watching a show on Netflix. But when I did it again, it became obvious what had happened: This was Twitter’s new refresh sound for mobile.
In fact, it’s two different sounds. Swipe down to trigger the reloading of content on your homepage, and you first get an odd escalation of notes that has been compared to a frog ribbit or something out of a 1950s alien B-movie. The second sound, played as new information is displayed, sounds like the swoosh of a door closing on Star Trek.
Though the app has been rolling out the sound updates to users for at least two weeks, a significant number of tweeters are beginning their first encounters with the new Twitter refresh sound this week. Opinion, it’s fair to say, is mixed.
For every action, however, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. Some have been brave enough to profess liking the new sound.
Among those who woke up to a whole new Twitter was U.K. comedian and writer Jon Harvey. “I just noticed it this morning and thought it sounds like an unnecessary and vaguely annoying ribbit,” he says. His reaction was negative from the get-go.
“Maybe, just maybe, if they were going to pick a noise, then maybe there was a more obvious — and dare I say it, pleasing — sound that was staring Twitter in the face,” he adds. In other words: Why not a bird sound?
Jasmine Moradi, a behavioral science expert focusing on audio and its impact on user experience, says she has mixed opinions about the update. She calls the previous pop “boring.” “I like the first [new] sound” — when you pull down on the feed — “however the second sound” — when it reloads — “is, in my opinion, not useful and annoying.”
Like Harvey, she’s also unsure why the sound is so abstract. She also suggests that sound signals could be integrated into other parts of the app. She thinks, for instance, that when someone sends a tweet, a corresponding bird sound would make perfect sense. It would demonstrate “a positive user action — that you have sent your bird voice out to the world,” she says.
Time and effort
But nitpicking aside, why has the sound been changed in the first place? A Twitter representative declined to comment for this piece, but experts have their own thoughts.
Lorenzo Picinali, head of the Audio Experience Design lab at Imperial College London, is a fan of the changes. “The type of sound they’ve generated is quite complex from a spectrum or timbre point of view,” he says. “It’s also very localizable” — meaning it’s easy to discern from where the sound is emanating (as opposed to non-localized sounds such as your phone’s ring.) “I wonder if it’s a way for you to hear that something has happened and be able to locate your phone.”
Picinali says that such a reworking of key sounds within Twitter must have taken serious time and effort. “You would be impressed how much work is spent on generating the right sound rendering,” says Picinali.
He says he’s sat through conference presentations by audio designers for car manufacturers who laboriously alter the pitch and tone of a car door closing to ensure drivers feel their machine is safe. Research shows switching out the acoustic pitch of a product can have a huge impact on the perception of that product.
“When I Google ‘Twitter refresh sound,’ the first articles are all about how to turn the sound off.”
Picinali compares the Twitter ribbit to other iconic sounds that have kept their place in tech, from the sound of a Windows 95–powered machine starting up — or, more likely, giving you the blue screen of death — to the sound of a new WhatsApp message landing on your phone.
“With time, we do associate certain sounds with certain things,” says Picinali. And so it’s important that businesses spend the time to get sounds right. “Any brand neglecting or bypassing the importance of audio design in UX will be as forgotten as Nokia,” says Moradi. “To avoid the ‘Nokia effect,’ audio design is not a maybe but a must.”
But despite all the hard work that must have gone into the new sounds, many people seem resistant to change. “When I Google ‘Twitter refresh sound,’ the first articles are all about how to turn the sound off,” Moradi says. “This is instantly an indication that Twitter has not succeeded with this audio design strategy.”
But Twitter could turn it all around by acknowledging the error of its ways. The off-key sound could be presented as a PR stunt, from which they could launch a competition for users to submit better alternatives, she says.
As for Harvey, he sees another upside to the new, off-putting noise. “Ultimately, if the new sound stops us all from refreshing Twitter so much,” he says, “it might be for the best.”