Cartoon face of a man with his hand to his ear, listening to sound waves.

iCons and Earcons: Critical but often overlooked tech skills

What are Earcons and how do you teach them?

Updated 3/21/23; Original post as published 2/20/2019

iCons are visual symbols that represent information such as an app, an object (such as a file), or a function (such as the command to save). Users who are visually impaired, rely on screen readers to announce the information that is conveyed with an iCon. What does a gear symbol mean? A magnifying glass? an envelope? (Settings, Search, Mail).

Earcons are designated sounds which convey a specific event or item. You hear a soft ping and instantly pull out your phone to check your messages. Without the use of words, everyone automatically knows that the ping is the universal sound that means a new message has arrived. What other sounds does your tech use to convey information? What about the ‘whoosh’ sound or that alarming beep? (sent email, error message beep) How about the click when you type a character using the onscreen keyboard? Mainstream operating systems for computers, tablets and smart phones all use earcons. Most people recognize and use these earcons subconsciously, without knowing the term ‘earcon’ and without specific instruction about earcons. 

Screen readers have additional earcons that play a crucial role for users who are visually impaired. These earcons alert the user to what is happening on the screen. Using a brief sound, earcons can provide detailed information in a very quick and subtle format. The earcon conveys this information without interfering with a screen reader announcement and is not impacted by the speech rate of the screen reader. Since Earcons should be introduced early – as the student is first being introduced to a screen reader – this post will focus on iOS VoiceOver earcons. The same earcons are used on all Apple devices. and all screen readers on every device has a designated set of earcons.

Settings for Earcons

Earcon volume can be adjusted. To unmute or raise the volume of earcons, go to:

Settings > Sounds > and under ringer and alerts – Change with Buttons. Toggle Change of Buttons On then increase the slider (move to the right). 

Typically, 75% is used when teaching students to use earcons. Once the desired earcon volume is set, toggle of Change with Buttons. You can lower the earcon volume after the student becomes proficient with earcons, if desired. Change with Buttons will adjust the volume of all earcons – mainstream earcons such as a message alert as well as VoiceOver earcons.

Note: Earcon volume is different than the music volume, other app-related volume, and VoiceOver Volume.

In iOS 12, when the Change with Buttons is toggle On and you use the physical volume button located on the top left edge of the iPad, the earcon volume WILL adjust when using the physical volume controls. If the Change with Buttons is toggle Off, the earcon volume will NOT adjust when using the physical volume controls. Note: The Change of Buttons has different results in different iOS versions. When using the physical buttons to adjust the volume, an image of either a speaker icon or a bell icon briefly appears. The bell icon indicates that the earcon and other alerts is also being adjusted; the speaker icon indicates that only the standard app volume and VoiceOver volume is being adjusted. 

If earcons are not heard, check that Mute Sound Effects is toggled Off. Turning this toggle On will mute earcon sounds.

Settings > General > Accessibility > VoiceOver > Audio > Mute Sound Effects (Off)

VoiceOver Earcons on the Home Page Activity

On the Home screen with VoiceOver running, ask your student to initially mute VoiceOver in order to focus their attention on the earcons. Once the student becomes more aware of the earcons, unmute VoiceOver. Below is a list of earcons and the gesture used to make the earcon.

To hear just the VoiceOver earcon without VoiceOver talking, mute/unmute VoiceOver Speech with a three-finger double tap. (If VoiceOver and Zoom is activated, use a three-finger triple tap to mute/unmute VoiceOver Speech.)

Note: Some of these sounds are challenging to describe with words! It might be easier to mimic the earcon when working with students!

Updated earcons definitions 3/21/23

Earcons definitions:

Click: Move focus to the next or previous item (swipe or drag)

2-tone: Selecting a button (double tap or split tap)

Ascending 2-tone: Move focus to the next row (swipe right)

Descending 2-tone: Move focus to the previous row (swipe left)

Triple tone: Anytime the screen transitions to a new screen: 

Thunk: Try to perform an action that has no effect: 

Piano: Indicates that a gesture performed is not a recognized gesture (such as two fingers swipe left or right). Note: The Thunk sound is used to indicate a correct gesture has been performed but the action cannot be completed in that circumstance.

Duh-Duh-Duh: Indicates that there is nothing under your finger (used when dragging finger over empty space on the screen)

Chirping click: Navigating through rotor options; “Spinning” the rotor (two finger twist gesture)

Download the list of earcon definitions here.

Updated Earcon Video:

Old Earcon definitions (2019)

Most of the earcons are the same. The piano earcon is new. I’ve left the old earcon definitions and old video, in case you are running an older version of iOS.

Old earcon definitions:

The next video is auditory only. Listen to the earcons – can you identify what each sound represents?

By Diane Brauner

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