What is that clicking sound?

It’s a sound you may hear everyday, possibly thousands of times a day. It depends on whether you edit, type, or consume, but for the majority of my design colleagues, it’s a sound that can signal productivity or a terrible attention span. It’s a sound that can actually affect our buying decisions. It’s a sound that a new generation will likely never hear.

I have been using a mouse, in one form or another, for the better part of 30 years. When I was younger, I took it for granted. As computers evolved and input methods changed, I would move with the times. I tried everything from gesture control to trackpads, trackpads being a necessary evil in the world of mobile computing (although even those are giving way to touch screens). Maybe it was the point in time that I began using computers, but my heart and perhaps my muscle memory has always been with the mouse.

My first experience with a mouse was with an IBM PS/2 computer. I can still remember the hollow clunk of the huge buttons and the subtle grinding of the rubber trackball contained within. These sounds are part of my nostalgic soundscape and they will forever serve as a conduit to a simpler time in computing.

I work with my ears all day. I design sounds for things that do not make sound. I work very hard at creating a voice and a vocabulary for products and systems that have yet to learn to speak. I love what I do. I get to work with the smartest and most talented people. A funny thing happens when you do something you love for years on end; you get good at it. I have gotten very good at listening (well, most of the time). I found, after a number of years, that I was hearing things I had never noticed before. These sounds had always been there, I just failed to hear them. This is true of my mouse.

Have you ever considered what your mouse sounds like? Have you ever thought twice when scrolling through pages or dragging a file across your desktop? Have you focused on the note that rings out when you place your mouse on your desk? The frequency emitted when you double click? Maybe not, but perhaps you will after reading this.

A Musical Instrument

When sitting at a computer and making sounds, I work with many instruments. They range from random knick-knacks and clackers to polyphonic analog synthesizers. We perform together, we work together to create sound. I realized that there was always another instrument in the room. Another sound source that was matching my every gesture. This object would be an extension of my arm and in some subtle way it would affect how I work. It would grind and slide, its rhythmic detents sounding throughout the studio. Its punctuation: a click.

In a mouse, the clicking sound that you hear is the result of a tiny switch inside the chassis. Alone, these micro switches sound very thin, almost imperceptible. When you pair these micro switches with a large paddle or button and place them into a hollow cavity, you begin to form an instrument. The tiny almost imperceptible click becomes something else. Certain frequencies are amplified and this causes the chassis to resonate. Thinking back to the older mice of the 80’s and 90’s you can start to understand what I am talking about. Add to this the pressure of your hand pressing down onto the surface of your desk and the timbre changes even more. A mouse will sound different on any desk and in any hand. Its really quite amazing when you think about it.

On The Wrong Track

I never really thought much about what mouse I was using until I went to Nashville in early 2004. I was taking a ProTools Certification course and the instructor urged me to try the Kensington Expert Mouse. I learned that it was a standard piece of kit in all the recording studios (this is largely due to the fact that it is a track ball and therefore needs very little real-estate on the console to be useful). So, being young and impressionable, I bought one and happily went back to my home studio to begin the process of re-learning how to use a mouse. Being a track ball, it made this a very different experience. I was immediately regretting my decision but I felt I needed to give it a good go (it turned out to be a ten year ‘go’). One thing that struck me was the sound of the Expert Mouse. The huge ball rolled across its tiny bearings with a smooth silkiness that was such a pleasure…until you had to scroll. The scroll wheel, which hasn’t been updated since, felt like I was dragging a chuck of plastic across a desk covered in sand. It was terrible.

The buttons were large and the chassis was pretty hollow. This gave the Expert Mouse a very distinct tone. It was almost too much audio feedback. I like audio feedback. It’s what I do, it’s important to me, and it’s a natural consequence to interacting with the world. That being said, sometimes the sound can turn you off.

Compelled by a strange principle, I wouldn’t give up on the Expert Mouse. Even after it died on me, I replaced it with a wireless version, thinking that surely Kensington would have updated the scroll wheel. Nope.

The Hockey Puck Mouse Again?

After a while, I got tired of the noise. I realized that I didn’t have to stay in this situation. So, being a slave to beautiful design and a sucker for all things Apple, I purchased the Apple Magic Mouse.

What a glorious design. So smooth and Apple-esque. It was love at first sight. Then frustration at first hold. It wasn’t all bad, but it wasn’t great. The click was well produced and there was very little chassis resonance. It moved well across the desk and was slim (a plus for travel). Two things that struck me about the Magic mouse was its touch interface for scrolling and the lack of button separation. Both of these issues are a result of its beautiful industrial design. Having a seamless top surface was indeed appealing. But I missed something that I had gotten used to and not even known it.

With all mice that have separate paddles there is a unique sound produced from each button even if the micro switches are a matched pair and, in theory, identical. This is due in large part to the asymmetry of the chassis and the dampening effects of your hand and the different pressure being put on either side on the chassis (this is also because I have a tendency to raise my index finger off the mouse when right clicking). Also, the Magic Mouse, despite having the capability of a left and right click, only has one microswitch. It uses capacitive touch to determine where you are clicking.

The Next Logical Step

I was talking with my brother one fine day about input devices (yes, this is what we talk about on fine days). I was lamenting the hand cramps I had been feeling of late through the use of my Magic Mouse. He suggested I try the Logitech Performance MX. He happened to have an older one that he wasn’t using. He gave me this mouse. I got home and charged it up, installed the software and immediately remembered why I love mice. The ergonomics of the Logitech MX series is unrivalled. My hand fell onto the surface of the Logitech as if jumping into a luxury hotel bed for the first time. Every point of contact was welcomed with a contoured comfort that actually made me want to use this mouse without even turning my computer on!

This was an older mouse and probably had a good ten thousand hours on it (which ironically made it more of an expert than my Expert Mouse). Although the ergonomics were intact, the mechanisms inside were too far gone to be at all productive. The micro switches were intermittently double clicking and the scroll wheel would only sense every five or six passes of the optical sensor. I later realized that a great deal of dog hair had something to do with this. Nonetheless, I was hooked on the Logitech ergonomics.

This didn’t affect my confidence in Logitech at all. I saw the good in this product and I knew that an up-to-date version would be everything I hoped. I was right. I purchased the Logitech MX Master S2 about six months ago. I have stopped my search.

Infatuation with the Actuation

From the moment I held the MX Master in my hand, I knew I was home. It shared the same ergonomic pedigree as all the MX mice that came before. It seemed a touch more refined though, maybe a better fit in my hand. The textures felt more natural and it only made the experience that much better than that of the Performance MX. The mouse slid across my wooden desk with a smoothness and lightness that made tracking effortless, there was no dissonance between the surface of my desk and the pads on the bottom of the mouse. The sound was as gentle as a breeze through a coniferous forest. It seemed harmonically in balance with the chassis and resonated ever so slightly with an increase in movement. The clicks were tight, and had very little resonance. It was as if the chassis was tuned to the micro switches, each click ringing out a slightly different note whether you pressed left or right button. The scroll wheel purred as it went through its detents. The volume increasing slightly as you intensified your scroll. At a point, the scroll wheel would break from the detents and spin freely almost silently. When the spin came to an end or you placed your finger the scroll wheel a catch would be heard. I have found myself fidgeting with this articulation many times. There is something about the relationship between these three phrases. The detents, the free spin, and the catch. So much musicality in a simple scroll wheel.

Less Heard More Felt

As we move away from moving parts to a solid state world we lose these wondrous sounds of actuation. We can mourn these losses, or save these sounds. Many people have collected these devices for the purposes of study and preservation. One such collection, which is the most extensive I’ve ever seen, is that of Bill Buxton. His library of human computer interaction devices is as extensive as it is diverse.

These collections will preserve the tactile experience for the lucky few who get to interact with them. However, for most of us, we will rely on recorded media to express the sounds that these devices made. Sadly, something will inevitably get lost in the translation.

Apple started to do away mechanics years ago when they introduced their new MacBooks with ForceTouch. The technology allows the Taptic engine to mimic the physical sensation of a micro switch being actuated. It gives the user a physical sensation as well as some subtle audio feedback. Its a very convincing experience and one that will no doubt be common place in the years to come.

As we pair these haptic sensations with thoughtful sound design, we can produce very natural audio experiences. When designing interaction sounds, I always try to take a holistic approach from a physical standpoint. Sounds are created based on the laws of physics. When we are interacting with a glass screen that has little to no give, physics tells us that there should be no sound. While this is true, this often belies the graphical interaction represented on the screen.

It’s important that we create the connection between the graphical, the physical, and the audible.

More and more, we interact with glass screens to type, tap, and draw. It’s important to remember where we came from with regards to audio feedback. If we want to make our solid state interactions feel natural, we need to take into account the natural world. And sound is a part of that.

This has been a story of my search for the perfect ‘sounding’ mouse. I have found it. I will enjoy this tactile experience while I can. The next time you are using your mouse or trackball, take a listen to it. These sounds my not be around much longer.

What are some of your favourite sounding objects that you interact with on a daily basis? Let us know in the comments below.