How Sonos is changing the way we listen to music

A new generation of ‘smart’ speakers, linked to cloud-based streaming services is changing the way we listen to music. We speak to Tad Toulis, VP of Design at US audio brand Sonos, about designing such experiences

Home ‘hi-fi’ (as we used to call it) was once a world of pulsing lights, dials, graphic equalisers and buttons, lots of buttons. Alan Partridge complimenting the ‘nice action’ of a tape deck springs to mind.

But the way we listen to music has changed hugely: save for the vinyl revivalists, it is no longer a mechanical process but a digital one. Instead of a bewildering array of LEDs, the Wi-Fi-enabled boxes we use to play audio present a largely blank face. Our phones or iPods take care of all those features that were once such a selling point for a CD player or tuner. And so design in this space has become more about experiences – from the grand theatre of ‘unboxing’ a new product, to set-up and daily use.

Take Sonos, for example, one of the leading brands in this new audio sector. Its range of wireless speakers can be linked in a network allowing users to stream music – or any other kind of audio – from their phones throughout the home, unbroken from room to room. Their offer relies on a marriage of software and hardware and the company creates both.

“We’re not just building shells that we put other people’s operating systems in,” says Tad Toulis, VP of Design at Sonos. “As we go toward the Internet of Things, the hardware and software working together is actually going to be the lifeblood of a product.”

As we go toward the Internet of Things, the hardware and software working together is actually going to be the lifeblood of a product

“I was attracted to Sonos by the aspiration of working on hardware and software in tandem,” Toulis says. “[At other brands] I saw extreme segregation of those activities, where there was knowledge of one thing but not another. What we are trying to do is build experiences and experiences require phenomenal co-ordination across a range of functions within an entire organisation, not just within design departments. That’s the problem space that most designers in consumer electronics are dealing with. Integration is hard and that’s the big obstacle now.”

A listening room at the Sonos store
A listening room at the Sonos store

Toulis joined Sonos in 2013. “At the time [my role] really meant industrial design,” he says, “but it has now taken on packaging, user research, user experience, documentation and CMF [Colour, Materials and Finish]. So there are really three arms to it – hardware stuff, software stuff and, in the middle, understanding the user.”

Sonos’s Toulis heads up a design team of 35, the majority of whom are based in Santa Barbara in California. Their specialisms span packaging and structural design, user experience, visual design, industrial design, information architecture, software engineering and user research. Beyond that team, Toulis explains, design within a brand like Sonos is such a complicated activity that it has to involve the rest of the organisation as well as outside suppliers and partners.

Traditionally, he says, consumer electronics has been a sector in which competition was based on features and price – inevitably resulting in a race to the bottom. “What you need to do – if the brand is able to support it – is be a point of view in a category, not just a list of features at a certain price,” Toulis says. “Sonos came up with a solution that was implicitly experiential, where you could connect up a bunch of speakers to create something that, before, you had to drill holes in the ceiling to achieve. When you set up a Sonos system and you have a few [speakers] working in conjunction you get this embryonic soundscape where you can move from room to room without interruption. It’s deeply pleasurable and deeply experiential. Our challenge is getting people to understand that.”

Sonos retail space, designed by Partners & Spade
Sonos retail space, designed by Partners & Spade

Toulis says that this sector has been through a period of “over-designed, highly-stylised products which I think is settling down now. In the 2000s, a lot of product designs [had to work] as free advertising. Brands didn’t have a lot of marketing budget so a lot of effort went into creating visual novelty.” Potential buyers searching the web for a new speaker, “would remember that funny-shaped blue thing” better than they would a standard black box.

As the product experiences become more complicated…the containers that carry that experience become simpler

But, Toulis says, “as the product experiences become more complicated because of the digital component, the containers that carry that experience become simpler.” There’s no need to accommodate multiple control devices, for example, when all the controlling takes place via a phone or iPod. With Sonos, he says, the “product should disappear into the background and only come forward when you are interacting with it. When you do, it should be like ‘wow, this is really well done’.”

Though restrained, such a design approach, he says, can “still be powerful. The problem with much consumer electronics, as with much of the built environment, is that it confuses power with hubris. I’m a huge fan of 1970s American art – people like Donald Judd. That work is super minimal but extremely powerful.”

The Sonos store in Soho aims to replicate the experience of listening to Sonos products in the home via various listening rooms – the speakers adjust to the materials and space of a particular room
The Sonos store in Soho aims to replicate the experience of listening to Sonos products in the home via various listening rooms – the speakers adjust to the materials and space of a particular room

Sonos products, Toulis says, “should blend into your environment, so we’re trying not to go crazy with the geometry [of them]. The seminal shapes of audio equipment exist b
because the technical requirements demand certain design outcomes. You can force a speaker into something that looks like a figure eight but the truth is that [if you do that] you are starting with a conceit of what you want it to be not what it wants to be.”

Most Sonos products conform roughly to the shapes we have come to associate with speakers. “So the question then is ‘how do we make it look like a modern speaker?’ And that’s where things like touch controls, the colour, materials and finish, come into it.”

Tad Toulis, VP of Design at audio brand Sonos. Photo: Erin Feinblatt
Tad Toulis, VP of Design at audio brand Sonos.Photo: Erin Feinblatt

But creating the physical product is only half of the experience. To play music on a Bluetooth or wireless speaker, you need a paired device such as a phone or iPod. Sonos has its own app via which users can play their streaming services of choice.

What are the challenges of trying to create both hardware and software with the same design sensibilities and brand positioning? “These products are very complex,” Toulis says. “The people required to work on them have very specific knowledge. They speak different languages in terms of their technical skills. Sometimes the way they think is different – a software engineer who is writing code thinks very differently to a user researcher, for example. So you’re trying to coordinate these [different specialisms] into a picture bigger than their parts. To do that you’ve got to find universal stories and a very simple language that people can get behind and understand what the outcome is. People, understandably, tend to think about the immediate impact of their role, my job is to get them to realise that even if a solution might be better from, say, a technical aspect, we have to think about how people actually use the product.”

Sonos, exploded view
Sonos, exploded view

One of the most important software tasks for this kind of product is the initial set-up process – make that frustrating or longwinded and the whole experience is undermined. To set up a Sonos system, for example, the app asks the user to select which model they have and where in the house it is located, giving a name to each, corresponding with the room the device is in.

“We still have work to do on our set-up experience,” Toulis admits. “There are a lot of forces working to make it less good! The real question is ‘how did it feel?’ Did it feel complicated, did it feel long? Did it feel like there were too many steps? Sometimes I say to my team ‘I will reward the person who can take steps out of [the process]’, but complicated experiences can seem easy – like riding a bike. Sometimes the best way to get to the outcome the user wants is by adding more stuff in, giving them more control so they navigate through it themselves rather than forcing them into a process that they don’t understand. So it’s not so much about ‘make it short’ as ‘does it feel balanced with the benefit they get versus the time spent?’”

If setting up the software is the final step for new owners of these kind of products, the first step – the so-called ‘unboxing’ – is perhaps the one that has received most consumer attention. Unboxing videos on YouTube, where purchasers lovingly unpack everything from phones to trainers, routinely receive hundreds of thousands of views. Understandably then, this is a process that receives a great deal of attention from Toulis and team.

If setting up the software is the final step for new owners of these kind of products, the first step – the so-called ‘unboxing’ – is perhaps the one that has received most consumer attention

“Our Packaging Design Manager, Michelle Enright, came up with a concept called ‘dramatic reveal’,” Toulis says. “You’re buying this as a gift – either for someone else or for yourself. You want to see the thing that you bought as soon as humanly possible but, before, it was hidden under the packaging, the documentation – somewhere underneath all that stuff was the actual product.”

The packaging team’s challenge, Toulis says, was “What would it take to be able to immediately see the product? With the Play:5 [Sonos’s largest speaker], a  product of that size and weight immediately creates challenges. The way we cushion and support it requires a lot of materials. It doesn’t matter how good the ‘unboxing’ is if the product arrives damaged, so the number one thing is that the product should arrive undamaged. Number two is that, when it arrives, it should feel like it’s your birthday. How do we achieve that in a cost defensible way?”

Sonos products
Sonos products

With the Play:5, “The first view of the product is of its primary face with the wordmark up. There is space either side so you can get your hands [into the box] and lift it up. That product originally had a handle on the outside of it but we got rid of it because we wanted to use the space inside and also because we realised the best way to lift it is with two hands. Making a handle for one hand was not sending the right message.”

Sonos engages in extensive user testing to shape this experience. Toulis says the team debated long and hard about shrinkwrapping products. Some felt that shrinkwrap felt too cheap but, with the bigger goal of being able to see the product clearly and reducing weight in mind, the team tested it. Despite having a tab to enable users to remove the shrinkwrap, in testing people were still trying to cut the wrap with a knife and damaging the product in the process. “Obviously we hadn’t signed the product properly,” Toulis says. “We test and test so we get close to what we envision and make affordances depending on how users actually do it.”

Understanding how our listening habits are changing and the opportunities that creates is key to Sonos’s future, Toulis says. “People have a very particular understanding of how sound operates in their lives. They probably have five or six devices. The opportunity is to show how all of that stuff can be connected to a common source which is the cloud coming over broadband. Once we introduce them to the idea that a sound source doesn’t have to be locked to a media device, their eyes widen: ‘I could do that?’ Whenever someone says that, you feel you are on the cusp of something exciting.”

Inside the Sonos store, designed by Partners & Spade;
Inside the Sonos store, designed by Partners & Spade;

Toulis says that products such as the Amazon Echo have also shifted perceptions. “People have realised they don’t have to partition [their listening]. You can invest in a system that meets multiple use cases. TV, audio books, music streaming – all these things can come via the same devices which is where we have the opportunity to create value.”

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