Let's get started with the main way your phone communicates with you: through its ringtones.
Your smartphone's ringtones are designed to alert you when you have call, a text, new email, or when it's time to get get up.
Default ringtones are meant to grab your attention as quickly as possible. By design, they're meant to be... well, alarming.
When you have one ringtone, every call is as important as every other: your parents, your acquaintance from work, the nurse at your child's school, the telemarketer and push poller are all on an equal footing.
All appointments are equally important.
All texts arrive with the same frantic breathlessness.
But our phones would be more useful, and our lives would run a little better, if our phones could do a better job of distinguishing between incoming calls, texts and email coming from the people who have the right to interrupt you, and everyone else.
We need the option of having ringtones that are ambient not alarming, quiet rather than insistent. Ringtones shouldn’t just catch our attention: they should communicate information as well.
So instead of having one ringtone for everyone, I have two ringtones (and text tones). One if for the people who have the right to interrupt me, and who I want to be able to reach me no matter what. The other is for the rest of the world.
People in that first category— family, close friends, the kids’ schools, a select few professional contacts— get the opening bars of Derek and the Domino's "Layla" as their ringtone. Their texts are announced with the wailing guitar in the closing credits of "Once Were Warriors.”
I choose these because no matter where I am or what I'm doing, I'm going to hear them. That's the point: I can be absolutely confident that if I hear one of these tones, it's from someone I need to pay attention to.
All other callers get the opening bars of Brian Eno’s “Ambient Music for Airports,” with the volume set pretty low. Texters get a selection of ancient Chinese music from Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road project. These are sounds that I’ll notice if I’m not focused on something else, but they're easy to ignore if I’m busy. It’s also easy for me to make a quick decision about whether I want to answer or not.
So the first thing we're going to do is expand your iPhone's voice, so it doesn't treat every interaction equally.
By creating different ringtones and text tones that are more or less urgent, louder or quieter, that insist on your attention or wave from the edge of your consciousness, you can give your iPhone a more nuanced, humane way of communicating with you.
Once you've created a set of ringtones that will work for you, you can then apply them to notifications in email, text messaging, as ringtones, and as alarms.
Fortunately, this isn't hard.
You can create new, subtle ringtones a couple ways. If you're musically inclined, you can create them in Garage Band. Personally, I like ringtones that draw on recorded music. There are (as of this writing, at least-- these things tend to change rapidly) ways of taking mp3 files and creating ringtones from them using iTunes, but they're kind of clunky: they involve selecting a segment of a song, then creating a new version of the song with a different file type, then renaming the file extension on the new version, and then reimporting it into iTunes. (Detailed instructions about how to do it are here and here.)
Instead, I recommending using a dedicated editor like Ringer. Ringer works with songs that aren’t copyright-protected (i.e., songs that you’ve ripped from your own music collection, not songs you’ve bought on iTunes). They also offer a greater degree of control over how the ringtones sound: for example, you can add a fade-in and fade-out. There are versions for the iPhone or Mac.
The key is to choose a mix of tunes that will grab and hold your attention— AND songs that will hover on the edge of your awareness— because you want to support both conditions. Different kinds of callers deserve different levels of your attention.
Next, we’ll see how to assign ringtones and text tones to different groups.