Illustration of microwave beeping

What's the Philosophy of a Beep?

Historically, kitchen appliances have generic, rudimentary beeps using simple electronics and a single-frequency buzzer. These simple beeps become an annoyance, are unheard, or are confused with other products vying for attention in a busy kitchen. We set a challenge to see what we could do with this simple setup. How could we vary the beep duration, time, and sequence to create more connection to the product and enable the user to have a better experience? In our experience with sounds, less is more. And context is important. Keeping the number of beeps to a minimum but creating a distinguishing difference between them is a fine balance. Products have different modes of operation, so they need to communicate with their users in different ways.

This article is part of a series on noise in everyday consumer products. Learn more by reading "The Science of Sound: How the Products You Use Every Day Are Engineered for Your Ears."

Giving Each Sound a Purpose

Confirmation that the user has done something can be handled with a simple “okay, got it” sound. Or if the product is unattended—say, you’ve gone into another room—a sound needs to be your call to action (“hey . . . finished”) without screaming at you.

Programming Each Tone

We played with sounds on a computer, finely chopping and editing the length of each beep and gap in between to create the final sound.

More on Noise

There was lots of discussion about the difference between 0.6 second and 0.8 second! We put the sound on a prototype to test with users, then we fine-tuned it.

It’s an enormous amount of time spent on something so small, but when the final product adds a layer of extra delight or just the right amount of communication to allow people to simply enjoy the experience with their appliance, it’s rewarding.

What the Beep?
Can you guess what these sounds mean? Each of these Davenport-designed beeps was created to communicate something specific. Try to match each one to its function.
The countertop oven has been turned on.
The countertop oven has reached the set temperature.
The countertop oven door has been left open.
The tea kettle has been turned on.
The tea kettle is hot.
The tea kettle has run out of water.
The espresso machine has been turned off.
The espresso is ready.
The espresso machine has an error.
The kettle temperature has been selected.
The kettle is awaiting a command.
The kettle is powering down.
The toaster has overheated.
The toast is finished.
The toaster is set to medium-dark.

Podcast: Product Noise Testing and Design

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the February 2019 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.