Soundwalking Homes in Design Ethnography

Stine Schmieg Johansen and Peter Axel Nielsen

1. Introduction


In this paper, we investigate the use of the soundwalk method as part of a design ethnographical study to inform interaction design for soundscape interventions. A soundscape is the entire sonic environment, made up of foreground and background sounds (Schafer 1994: 9). Assessing the quality of a soundscape as part of improving a sonic environment is complex: while it is possible to capture quantitative data such as noise levels, many studies suggest that perception of sound as pleasurable or annoying is subjective (Andringa and Lanser 2013). For a home setting, this calls for the involvement of people living there who, in most cases, have no prior experience with evaluating soundscapes. Soundwalks can be used for this purpose through guiding participants to listen to, record, and reflect on their soundscapes.


We carried out our investigation with the aim of defining use situations for sound zone systems in homes. Sound zones reproduce sound “within a desired region of space with a reduced sound level elsewhere” (Betlehem, Zhang, Poletti and Abhayapala 2015: 82). This is achieved through a particular technological setup that employs an array of loudspeakers and software filters, conceptually drawing upon current noise-cancellation abilities of headphones. A key challenge in audio engineering is to increase the acoustic contrast between various sound zones to a level at which the reproduced sound from one sound zone is not experienced as disturbing within another sound zone. When that is achieved, users can listen to music and sound within a defined area, thereby not disturbing nearby people. Following that, sound zone technology can be used to create small areas of individually-experienced soundscapes. This necessitates an analysis of the listening experience that takes into account the soundscape as a whole. In a seminal theoretical discussion, Bill Gaver (1993) distinguishes between everyday and musical listening. For our study, we consider these listening modes to be intertwined, as people typically play music on top of, sometimes with the objective of masking, environment sounds. We study the entire soundscape together with participants, and then we discuss how musical listening using a sound zone system fits into a context that also entails everyday listening.


Conceptually, sound zones offer new ways for a listener to control their soundscape by adding or removing particular sounds or adjusting characteristics of a sound, such as volume, within a physical area that is not bounded by walls (Betlehem et al. 2015). Technically, such systems cannot yet be successfully installed in homes. However, advances throughout the past two decades make it interesting to explore potential use situations to guide further development. The resulting use situations have been reported in a paper by Lundgaard and Nielsen in 2019. Here, we explore further how participants reflect on this new technology. Since the study reported here is aimed at supporting new technological interventions through engagement with participants, there is obviously a need to enable participants to reflect on situations supported by future technologies. This leads to the first research question: How can people with no background in either sonic studies or interaction design become engaged with understanding use situations for a type of technology not yet developed or available? Translating this question to our specific methodology: We investigate how soundwalks can be used as a foundation for inhabitants reflecting on potential technological interventions.


Specific approaches to soundwalks have been developed in parallel to new speaker technologies that change the ways people listen to sound and music (Westerkamp 2011). Previous research discusses how this change in listening behavior affects our relationship with the environment negatively: we become less attuned to unmediated sounds (Schafer 1994). We suggest that new speaker technology can also support people positively in their daily lives. Therefore, the second research question is: How can the soundwalk method be used to support people in recognizing positive listening experiences when the goal is to introduce digital technology into homes? We believe that a valuable next step is to not only engage people with their local soundscapes but to explore a methodological cross-section that involves opening a discussion about how future technological interventions could shape people’s daily lives. Our design ethnographical study provides context-rich information which can be used to develop a design. Consciously or not, people adjust their soundscape, e.g., by closing doors or wearing headphones, in a way that they experience as fitting the activities with which they are engaged (Uimonen 2011). We show the potential individuals have to intervene in their sonic environment in such a way that this environment becomes more suitable for themselves and others if they become more aware of immediate sounds and the impact of these sounds on their and others’ activities.