A mobile app that tracks your personal sound exposure

Help users track and understand the implications of their exposure

Project Brief
We designed a mobile app to track users' noise exposure throughout the day. Most people are unaware that extended exposure to noise levels above 85 decibles (example: a noise office1) can cause increased stress and illnesses such as heart attacks. Conversely, time spent in quiet environments can have an equally beneficial impact. We were shocked by the prevalence of exposure-related hearing loss, and how few tools are available to track noise exposure.
Date: Fall 2014
Role: UI/UX design
Collaborators: Garrick Li, Grant Neubauer, and Luyi Lu
Contextual Inquiries
Having established our problem space, we identified our target user and conducted contextual inquiries with people who are exposed to moderate to high levels of noise on a daily basis. We spoke with a chef from a local restaurant, a professional drummer, and a student. Each experience varying levels of noise exposure on a daily basis - both as part of their job and social activity. We also noticed varying levels of control over their noise exposure, but all participants we spoke with had not seriously considered the potential risks of their exposure.

From this research we recognized a general lack of awareness about the potential risks of noise exposure over time, and were excited by the expressed interest in tracking personal exposure.

"Aha"-Moment: Pivot to Positive

From our intial research we realized that the focus on noise exposure as bad and incorporating constant warnings is interpreted as "naggy" by users (especially those who do not have much control over their noise exposure). Based on this insight, we changed the focus of our solution to the positive aspects of time spent in quiet environments.
Initial Sketches
Based on our initial research efforts, I created initial interface sketches and storyboards to conceptualize how possible solutions might look and function.
Paper Prototyping
I created paper prototypes to quickly test our intial designs with users. By walking through the main tasks like viewing exposure history and measuring noise levels in the current environment, we were able to gather feedback about how ease of use and desirability of various functions. By paper prototyping before creating digital wireframes, we were able to iterate quickly.
The most significant changes made to during the prototyping stage were those made to the initial screen, and addressed the way information about the immediate environment is conveyed. We found that users were confused about the timer indicating the amount of time it is safe to remain in the current noise level. Given this, we removed the timer and added bars on either side to indicate daily time spent in loud versus quiet environments. These changes marked a critical shift towards emphasizing the risks of noise exposure and the benefits of time spent in quiet ("zen") environments more equally. With these changes we are able to create a clear default goal of balancing red versus blue time. We also moved the page tabs to the bottom of the screen to conform to typical convention and save space.
We created wireframes to iterate our design based on findings from paper prototyping. Wireframes provided an opportunity to do another round of evaluative testing.
View Current Noise Level: The initial screen allows users to quickly check the noise level of their immediate environment ("soundscape") and gain a basic understanding of the risks and implications associated with it. The blue and red bars indicate how much time the user has spend in either blue ("zen"/quiet) or red ("risk"/loud) environments so far that day.
Exposure History: Users can view their noise exposure levels across varying timescales. This became a major interaction as we shifted our focus towards prompting reflection rather than real-time awareness and alerts.
Exposure Implications: An analysis page provides feedback about user's exposure data. Here, the user can compare zen versus risk time, or swipe left/right to get more details about the meaning behind their exposure.
Final Design
For the final design, I focused on creating a more crisp and engaging design aesthetic, and further simplifying the display of information.
Reflection & Analysis
This project was an interesting investigation of a seldom explored topic: personal noise tracking. Given personal informatics is rapidly gaining traction, Soundscape was an opportunity to design a solution for a space beyond activity or sleep tracking. This design brings awareness and concrete data to an area that has is often overlooked but has significant impact on our quality of life. From my perspective, the greatest challenge facing this design is the extended delay between an action (exposure to loud noise) and the resulting outcome (hearing loss). Noise exposure has a cumulitive impact on our hearing; only extended patterns of exposure lead to deficits. The resulting "delayed gratification" makes the potential value of this solution increasingly murky. To address this, we focused on both the short-term benefits of quiet ("zen") environments and the long-term impact of loud exposure.
A second major challenge faced was finding a clear and intuitive way to communicate the "soundscape" of the immediete environment. Since people often don't have a working knowledge of what decibles are, simply reporting the ambient noise level is not useful. We struggled to establish a series of intuitive descriptors to accompany decible ranges that are clear to users. More user testing will be required to create a language that resonates with users. Finally, the design focus for this project was geared more towards creating an intuitive user interaction rather than polished visual aesthetic. The next step will be to produce a cohesive and refined visual language.
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