Using sounds for ambient alerting in a web startup

by jon on October 13, 2011

in Uncategorized

Over the last few weeks, Sylvain Kalache built a sound alerting system for the SlideShare office. What it does is make various noises in the slideshare office when a new subscription user signs up, cancels, or renews. It also makes sounds when a build fails, when a deployment to production starts, and when a deployment to production is successfully completed, and for when the site goes down. Sounds are a really pleasant and natural way to signal attention-worthy events!

The system was almost embarassingly easy to make (zero coding required):
1) First we configured the systems we wanted alerts from (our subscription billing vendor, our deployment system, our continuous integration system, and out uptime monitoring system) to send emails to a particular gmail account when events that we want the team to know about happen.
2) Then we hooked up an old windows desktop to a cambridge soundworks speaker system, and configured outlook to make various sounds when it receives emails that have particular strings in the subject. Basically, we’re using email like a lowest-common-denominator enterprise message bus.

Here’s a screenshot of what the outlook config looks like:
outlook configuration settings

And here’s the computer and sound system.
picture of computer and sound system
(historical note: this is the same computer that i refer to in this 2005 blog post, “Laundry Room PC”).

Having the sounds go off in the office is fun, but it’s also really practical. We all know whenever the build fails or when there’s a deployment in progress. And if we get a rush of subscriptions or cancellations we immediately investigate to figure out what we’re doing right or wrong. Plus, it’s great for team morale to hear the steady flow of renewals coming in throughout the day.

Here’s some of the sounds that we’re using, and the events that they represent:
Subscription renewal: hit the sales gong
Subscription cancelled?: Sad Trombone sound
New Subscription: Slot machine jackpot
Deploying: Sound the trumpets
Website Down: Air-raid siren

Final note: if you like making machines make noises, and you like to program, then check out our jobs page. We’re hiring!

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