The story behind the chirp: Intercom’s notification sound

Sound plays a considerable role in determining whether a product experience is good or not. But the line between useful and exasperating is a tenuous one, and it’s easier than you think to find yourself on the other side of it.

Note: This episode contains notification sounds, ambience, and music. If you would prefer to listen to the episode with just interviews, you can hear an alternative version here.

Notification sounds are all around us: Slack’s knock brush pulling you back to work, the WhatsApp ring sharing the latest in this year’s holiday dinner plans, the tumbling whimper of your AirPods when the battery’s running low or just about to die. The sounds you hear every day have been carefully curated not just to drive you towards a specific action but also to set a certain mood and encapsulate the brand that created them – just think about the Window’s 95 startup sound, a six-second-long chime composed by Brian Eno and one of the most recognizable sounds of all time.

We went through a similar process to come up with Intercom’s Messenger notification sound, or the chirp, as we call it. We wanted something friendly and accessible, just like Intercom, but not everything went exactly according to plan. As it turns out, choosing a sound, no matter how short, is more complicated than meets the eye. It’s highly subjective, and if the result isn’t perfectly suited to its context, well, people take notice.

This week on Inside Intercom, you’ll hear from our Senior Director of Product Design Emmet Connolly, Product Engineer Sam Murray, and Customer Support Specialist Robert Dunleavy on how Intercom landed on its notification sound and how a round of customer feedback gave way to the blip, bop, clack, hiss, shake and tick.

If you’re short on time, here are a few quick takeaways:

  • Sounds should match the feel of the brand. Giving your customers some extra customization options helps them feel a sense of ownership over it.
  • At first, we weren’t big on customization. But as the business grew, the type of Intercom customers we served changed. It became clear that larger customers who use our platform needed to customize it to better suit their needs.
  • Design should be simple so as not to overcomplicate the experience. But you may want to give people the opportunity to go under the hood, tweak and set up features in the way that best suits them. Finding that balance is key for a good experience.
  • When building services, take into account the different needs and experiences of your users. Research can help you make sure your product or service is accessible to everyone.

If you enjoy our discussion, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can follow on iTunes, Spotify or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.

What does your brand sound like?

Liam Geraghty: Sound permeates throughout our every day. It lets us know when we’ve got a message or when to mind the closing doors of public transport. It lets us know when it’s safe to cross the road. Many of these sounds are important and necessary, but sometimes they can affect us in unintentional ways.

“In the digital space, more than ever, we are listening to sounds that communicate information to us”

For example, there’s a small laundrette around the corner from where I live. There’s only really space for one or two people to step in and leave their bag of laundry to the staff. When I walk in, a doorbell sound is automatically triggered. It lets them know that me, a customer, has arrived so they can come out from the backroom and take my laundry back. But sometimes it takes them a few minutes before they actually come to the counter and, all the while, more and more customers are arriving behind me. Each time a new customer comes in the doorbell rings. For me, as the person at the top of the queue, I find it quite stressful because each new ring of the doorbell signifies a new person standing behind me, also wondering why the staff hasn’t come out. So it has a genuine function as a sound to alert staff, but it also has developed a negative response from customers like me.

In the digital space, more than ever, we are listening to sounds that communicate information to us, whether that’s a notification, warning, feedback, or engagement, and these simple brief sounds all come with a reason for their purpose: a story. So on today’s Inside Intercom, I want to tell you the story of Intercom’s messenger notification sound and how this one tiny sound, not even a second long, would become known infamously as the tinnitus cricket of death.

Emmet Connolly: When we first went to create the notification sound for the messenger, we gave a little bit of thought to how we wanted to approach it, not to just pick something from a sound library.

“People were talking about, ‘Remember the modem sounds that totally transport you back’”

Liam: That’s Emmett Connolly.

Emmet: I’m Emmett Connolly, director… Oh no, I got it wrong! You’re going to have an editing job on your hands-on there.

Liam: Emmett is Senior Director of Product Design at Intercom.

Emmet: We talked about some of the things we even thought of that came to mind when we talked about using sound in different products. People often talk about hearing a piece of music or something and being transported back to memories of years gone by. And then, very quickly, we got to talking about how lots of people had the same associations with software actually, although I think most designers – and this is probably a blind spot – most designers think about the graphical user interface. There are even things that might necessarily have been designed upfront, things like the modem sound. People were talking about, “Remember the modem sounds that totally transport you back?” Or, let’s say, the Windows 95 startup sound, that was actually recorded by Brian Eno. And so, these small little auditory calling cards remind people of things. And maybe a bit closer to home for us, things like the knock brush effect of a Slack notification. Even the little iMessage whoop – you hear those things and there’s this positive or negative Pavlovian response to the product that brings you straight into the product, in a sense.

Liam: So, for Intercom, we wanted to be thoughtful about the sound that we chose, that it would reflect our brand.

Emmet: The process for that is not really massively complicated. It’s going through a whole bank of options and trying to pick the one that matches the feel of the brand. And so, for Intercom, that’s looking for something that feels somewhat unique, but also friendly, accessible, not overwhelming. So, we eventually landed on the sounds we picked for our messenger and just wanted to build that brand association a little bit.

The tinnitus cricket of death

Liam: The sound was created and added to our messenger and everything went fine and that’s the end of the story. Well, not quite.

Sam Murray: You hear it when either a new conversation comes into the inbox.

Liam: That’s Sam Murray, a product engineer at Intercom.

“It’s how we typically call it; it’s a chirp. Customers have called it other things ruder than that, like, ‘The tinnitus cricket of death’”

Sam: Or when you’ve got a reply on one of your conversations that’s in your inbox.

Liam: Our notification sound was now out in the world, getting into people’s ears.

Sam: It’s like a little chirp sound. It’s how we typically call it; it’s a chirp. Customers have called it other things ruder than that, like, “The tinnitus cricket of death,” one customer called it.

Emmet: You build these associations through sound, but I think those associations can also be subjective. Some people, it turns out, love, and some people hate.

Liam: So the sound, the chirp, some people were finding it, well, annoying.

Sam: With the team that I was working on, we were working on some quite big features and changes that take a while to come to fruition. We thought it’d be nice to do some little things to fill in the gaps and solve some immediate problems that were fairly easy to tackle, and we saw this as something that we could fix fairly easily.

Liam: Around the same time, Robert Dunleavy, who works in customer support at Intercom, got a message from a customer to let us know about a problem with the sound that we weren’t even aware of.

“This was about elevating the fact that sound is part of how people think about their brand”

Robert Dunleavy: On a day-to-day basis in customer support, we get a lot of feature requests. They can range from anything from bizarre stuff that is never going to get built to genuinely good ideas.

One of the days, I was in the inbox, and I just got this message from a customer who was having a lot of issues with the notification sounds. She has autism and found the sound triggered her sensory overload, but at the same time, she had attention deficit issues. She needed the sound to remind her that she had messages. She was actually very complimentary of Intercom and how much she loves using it. She was saying, “It’s only a minor thing; it’d be really cool if it was fixed.” My gut instinct was that if the engineers read this and saw that it was only a minor fix, it could be fixed, and it was a story worth sharing.

Liam: So Robert brought the story to Sam.

Back to the drawing board

Sam: This caused us to really sit up, double down on the problem and try to solve it. That was really useful to know about that, and it gave us a real focus on what the new sounds should be like and what qualities they should have to prevent that kind of problem.

Emmet: You’ve got to think about our product, our messenger, as fitting into someone else’s product or website.

Liam: Emmett Connolly again.

Emmet: We offer lots of visual customization options to help the messenger fit in with their brand, the color, and so on. And so, this was about extending that slightly and elevating the fact that sound is part of how people think about their brand, as well, and giving them some extra options there. Although it’s a tiny little detail that you mightn’t consciously think about, if someone is hearing this a lot and it’s in their product, they feel a sense of ownership over it. And so, I think it’s important to give them some degree of control and customization over that sound.

“So we put together six sounds, built an experiment, and shipped it just to this customer for her to try out”

Liam: So, Sam on the team opened up GarageBand and played around with different sounds.

Sam: Kind of working out what kinds of sounds might be good, just really experimentation. I basically found some electronic drum pad sounds, and actually, a lot of the things in there are taken from electronic drum samples and are tweaked and modified to make them short and give them a not-too-loud, not-too-long sort of thing.

Liam: We also didn’t want to make the same mistake twice with the new sounds, so we contacted the customer who’d reached out.

Sam: When she reached out to us, we messaged back and asked her if she’d be up for working with us to work out what some better sounds might be. And it was great, she was really up for doing that. So we put together six sounds, built an experiment, and shipped it just to this customer for her to try out. She shared it with some of her colleagues, as well, and they tried it out for a few weeks. She got back to us and said that some of the sounds were much, much better and really helped with the problem. That gave us the confidence that the sounds we’d made were good enough to ship with.

Liam: Those six sounds are…

Sam: Blip, bop, clack, hiss, shake and tick.

A new outlook on customization

Emmet: We’ve kind of changed our mindset towards things like customization in the product. If we went back a few years ago at Intercom, you would’ve heard me saying to our designers, “We shouldn’t be adding preferences or customization. Every option, every preference that we add to the product is us abdicating our responsibility in making design decisions and foisting that upon our users. We should be making tough design decisions on behalf of our users so that they don’t have to think of that stuff.”

I think that was a very valid position to hold when you have a small number of users who are running, let’s say, smaller businesses. A long time ago, our users were companies where the CEO was using Intercom as one of the ten things they needed to get done that day, and so they don’t want to be fussing with a lot of tiny little details on the fringes – they want the simplest possible product that they can dive into, use, and get out.

“The design principle is simple by default, powerful under the hood. You don’t want to overcomplicate the product or sacrifice the simplicity of your experience”

As Intercom has grown and as our customers have grown, so have the type of users and the depth to which they’re using Intercom. And so, instead of being someone who uses Intercom as one of the ten products they use throughout the day (get in, get out, get the job done – that’s the imperative), it’s someone who uses Intercom all day long. Their job is to set it up so it works best for their business and so that they’re most effectively running their support or their marketing or their sales function on Intercom.

And so, for that user, they do require a greater depth of customization. It really reflects one of our design principles, which is to try and strike that balance. The design principle is simple by default, powerful under the hood. You don’t want to overcomplicate the product or sacrifice the simplicity of your experience. But you want to give people, in some cases, the opportunity to pop the hood and get in there and mess with the innards of the thing so that they can set it up the right way just for them. That shouldn’t be a necessity, but it should be an option.

Sam: There’s a lesson here about accessibility that when you’re designing or building things, people who are going to use it have lots of different types of needs and experiences, and it can be hard to account for all of them. But I guess the first step is just knowing what they are. Maybe doing some research – if you’re designing sounds, what different kinds of sounds affect people differently. Technologies are often about visual things and interfaces, and there’s a lot of accessibility tools out there and ways that you can design things visually to account for different accessibility needs. It’s not just confined to visual things – it’s audio and things for people with different neurological needs, as well.

The chirp lives on

Liam: Sam, you know what you have to do now, right? You have to make a full song, a musical composition, out of these new sounds.

Sam: Yeah. That’d be cool. Maybe we get some of our customers to take the sounds and make their own songs as well.

Liam: Stay tuned because, in just a moment, Sam is going to reveal which of the new six sounds is the most used. But first, thanks to Sam Murray, Robert Dunleavy, and Emmet Connolly for sharing this story.

If you’re enjoying Inside Intercom, we would love to hear from you. You can leave a review on Apple Podcasts or your preferred podcast platform, or let us know on social. Give us a shout-out, tag @Intercom.

Now to find out which of our six new sounds is currently top of the leaderboard.

Sam Murray: Last time I checked, which was a couple of weeks ago, bop was miles away ahead of all the others. Although some are still used quite a lot, bop is, by far, the most popular.

Liam Geraghty: As for the chirp?

Sam Murray: The chirp’s not gone. You can still use the chirp and the chirp sound, which, in the setting, it’s just called default because it is the default sound. Any new people who go into Intercom, they’ll get that sound, but then they can change it if they don’t like it. Chirp lives on.

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