Hear me now

Amrita Prasad
Sunday, 24 February 2019

Alex Johnston, founder and CEO of Soundcircles, tells us more about his app that allows users to add audio to their images and share them with friends

If you can’t read or write, communication becomes a huge hurdle. To overcome this hurdle,  Soundcircles, an app allows you to embed multiple short sound clips in any picture. So, the tool to spread the message is the ‘voice’. Founded by Alex Johnston, Soundcircles, has been used by organisations like BBC, MTV Europe, Buckingham Palace, Penguin Random House etc and is shareable on all social media and messaging platforms. The latest version of the app has been  localised in four languages: English, Hindi, Tamil and Bengali, and more languages will be added over the coming months. 
Johnston  tells us more about the app:

Why do you think digital messaging requires a tool like this? 
The problem of the underserved rural mobile user is that major social messaging platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp have been developed in markets with high levels of literacy. There is no point in sending a text message to someone who cannot read, let alone reply. But, from New York’s 5th Avenue to a dirt track in Niger, West Africa, to the gullies in Mumbai, everyone has a voice. We are taught reading, writing, declamation, politeness, vocabulary; and these are combined with native accents, inflections and speech patterns. By the time, we reach early adulthood, our voice is our most powerful and individual communications asset. 

The growth of social messaging has greatly impacted this natural civilising process. Children nowadays are given mobile phones at a very young age and their voice is homogenised into the conventions of text-based messaging such as emojis, capital letters and acronyms. In other words, the singularity of a person’s own voice, which we worked so hard to develop, is effectively replaced by the universal language of mobile as soon as we get our hands on the keyboard.

To me, this is a great loss to civilisation where individuality is what drives change. Every person’s right to express an opinion is a function of the voice with which they express it; and Soundcircles is designed to encourage such individuality. Photo-sharing is perhaps the most widely practised art in social messaging with 3.2 billion digital images shared around the world every day. Soundcircles seeks to add depth and individuality of ‘voice’ into this practice, thereby allowing Soundcirclers to share more than just a flat image. They say ‘Every picture tells a story’, Soundcircles is the platform that puts this power in the hands of every mobile phone user.

Yes, WhatsApp and Facebook etc allow the sending of voice-messages, but the virtual machine (VM) experience is grey and unsatisfying, like an aborted phone-call.  nd while, Soundcircles will not replace text-based messaging; it should find its niche amongst those bold enough to speak —those who have something to say. 
When everything is about pictures and videos nowadays, do you think a tool like Soundcircles will have enough takers? How does the tool work? 
The consumption of video is an unstoppable rocket. But the creation of video as social messages is problematic. Not everyone can ‘stage’ a video message, not everyone has time to receive a linear video message, and not everyone — particularly amongst the rural communities — has the bandwidth to download a video message. Soundcircles will occupy a different space, where a simple shared image can benefit from a layer of voice to enhance the meaning, humour and breadth of opinion.
The app is simple; fewer taps than creating an Instagram post and often quicker than a text message. Take a photo, add Soundcircle by tapping anywhere and recording, and send or post. That’s all it takes.

If your friend is running late, a simple text message saying “Running 15 minutes late. Sorry” is all that is required. It takes a few seconds to create and send, assuming there is no auto-correct. But imagine if that message is more complicated: “Running 15 mins late because I bumped into a friend who wants to come and join us. You don’t know her but she’s great.  Hope that’s OK with you. Xxx.”  That’s a longer message and you might want to include a picture of the new addition to the group. Soundcircles will be quicker, cuter and allow the sender to express more in his/ her voice than any text message.
It is a platform which can be used for messaging, adding voice to selfies, sending morning/ festival greetings creating news digests, marking papers and the list goes on. But we need to build the behaviour and that will take time. 

While creating Soundcircles, did you face any challenge? 
As the real value of Soundcircles showed itself, a number of challenges appeared. Not the least, how do we build an app that on-boards low-literacy users using the least number of written words?  This was achieved largely through graphics. But once on-board, we needed to show our new users that there are locally-created Soundcircles to educate, entertain and, most importantly, to inspire the creation of user messages. We were fortunate to find great local support in creating local editorial features that focussed on cricket, Indian politics and culture. For anyone who downloads Soundcircles today, there can be no doubt that this is an app for the Indian market.

How did you ensure that it is user-friendly and acceptable to all age groups? 
The design of Soundcircles borrows heavily from ‘Path’, a now-defunct social diary. The ethos that governs our design decisions is: make it simple, make it elegant. Quite early in the development process, we noticed that most messaging apps use only three of the four main hardware features of a smartphone (namely, microphone, speaker, camera). We wanted the touch-screen —the 4th essential hardware feature — to be at the heart of the Soundcircles experience. So, to create or consume a Soundcircle message, the user simply taps on the designated part of the touchscreen; thereby using the screen as a navigation aid to unlock the layers of audio embedded into a Soundcircles message. This is our equivalent of Tinder’s swipe.

But the Soundcircles user experience owes more to Twitter than Tinder and it allows for different voices to be embedded into the same image, so, for example, a news image can contain short-form commentary from a variety of differing points of view. 

We have a platform that includes Roald Dahl audiobooks and Donald Trump rants. For each user, the Featured Feed serves up a different selection based on preferences such as follows, search, location, etc. This is currently the only control lever that we use to age-discriminate. As the platform grows, I can see the introduction of greater customisation based on personal details, but we want our user-base to have the final word.

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