Listening in the City: Designing Better Portable Listening Devices for Changing Environments


Author/Creator ORCID



Type of Work


Yale Gordon College of Arts and Sciences, Division of Science, Information Arts, and Technologies


Interaction Design and Information Architecture

Citation of Original Publication



The focus of this thesis is how the design of portable listening devices (PLDs) can improve the interaction between urban users and their environment. First, in a literature review, topics such as the sociology of PLD use, sound studies and soundscape, and existing PLD technology are discussed to identify gaps in both theory and product design. Then, in order to design for the whole user experience, the results of user surveys and semi-structured interviews are presented to identify how participants use their devices and what motivates their behaviors. As expected, the survey and interview participants revealed how differently people use listening devices. Most significantly, users often employ PLDs in one two ways: (1) to escape from those sounds and people around them or (2) to mix the intentional sound from headphones with incidental sounds of the environment as a way to aestheticize an experience. The data showed, however, people will often, over the course of the day, use PLDs both ways—at times as escapism and other times to mix with environmental sound. In addition, the data revealed how a user’s age and gender can affect how and when the device is used. Based on user feedback, this paper recommends that an ideal design is one which can adapt to the environment, improve safety and situational awareness, and allow the user to configure the device to accommodate their preferences. Finally, these recommendations are presented as wireframes to illustrate how these concepts can be implemented in future applications.