Secondary Encoding

Primary encoding can be defined as the “astylistic” presentation of information via a medium of communication such as speech, text, and hand gestures. Secondary encoding is defined as a presentation style that applies to or accompanies primary encoding and provides additional information. Put in another way, primary encoding can be the "what" is said and secondary encoding can be "how" it is said.

Primary encoding is presented at face value and secondary encoding complements it with additional meaning. For example, you say the words, "I am very interested in this job" (primary) during an interview but you appear tired and uninterested (secondary) in what the interviewer is saying. From your body language, the interviewer will think you are not interested. The words you say may not be as important as how you say them.

Watch the following videos on the importance of body language and non-verbal communication, which contains secondary encoded information.

This ADE will provide you with an overview of a few secondary encodings and what happens when a person cannot detect it. It will focus on the use of colour, tone, and culture.

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The way we speak can convey information about ourselves, beyond the spoken words The tone of voice we use with the words convey the the meaning we intended as well as our emotions. Without the tone, as is often the case with text, it can be difficult to determine the meaning. The first and second activities will illustrate this.

Tone is sometimes also used to alert a user of an event. This is called an earcon. However, the user may not be able to detect it due to a hearing disability. The earcon may use a tone that is outside the range of hearing. The third activity will illustrate this.

What to do:

  1. Go to the Tones and Emotions website and complete the activity.
    1. Did you detect different emotions from the provided answers?

  2. Go to the Lack of Tone website and complete the activity.
    1. How many of the emotions/meanings did you get correct?
    2. What techniques do you use to indicate your emotions/meanings when you are chatting with friends online?
    3. How do you express the following?
      • Anger
      • Sarcasm
      • Excitement
      • Happy
      • Pity
      • Boredom
    4. Do your friends express it the same way as you? If not, how does it differ?
    5. What are some problems with using emoticons and acronyms?

  3. Take this hearing test and see which range of tones you are able to hear.

    1. What is your "reference sound" (dB)?
    2. What range(s) of sound can you hear (in Hz)?
    3. Compare your results with someone. How does their range differ from yours?
    4. As a developer, how would you avoid earcons that use sound outside the hearing range of your users?


Our cultural background has a strong influence on how we interpret information. The tones in a language can affect how we speak and how we understand another language. Also, the phrases within one culture can be unknown to another. The following activities will illustrate this.

What to do:

  1. Listen to the following English audio clips.
    1. What can you conclude about the pronunciation of the words and the meanings? (Note: It may help to write down the spelling of each word in the audio clip.)
  2. Listen to the following clip.
    1. How many different words do you think is being spoken?
    2. How many times do you think the "same" word was spoken?
  3. Go to the New Concept Mandarin page and listen to the different tones in the language. Each tone can be a different word. Were you able to tell the difference between the pronunciations? Listen to the clip again. How many words can you hear?

What to hand in:

In addition to the questions asked throughout this activity, submit the following questions.

  1. What did you learn from this ADE?
  2. What will you do differently now that you have learned it?
  3. Should secondary encoding be used on Web content? If so, how should it be used? If not, why not?
  4. Besides those presented in this ADE, what are some other solutions that can help resolve the problems with secondary encoding?
  5. Feedback
    1. What were your expectations of this ADE?
    2. Did this ADE meet your expectations? Provide a rating between 1 and 7, where 1 means not at all, 4 means somewhat, and 7 means absolutely. Please explain your choice.
    3. Did you feel that the video(s) for this ADE was appropriate? Why or why not? Provide a rating between 1 and 7, where 1 means not at all, 4 means somewhat, and 7 means absolutely. Please explain your choice.
    4. Do you have any suggestions for other possible videos?
    5. Did you feel that the questions above got you to think about the real and serious issues regarding this ADE? Provide a rating between 1 and 7, where 1 means not at all, 4 means somewhat, and 7 means absolutely. Please explain your choice.
    6. If you have any suggestions on how to improve this ADE, please include it here.

Additional Information and Tools

  1. Wikipedia provides a good summarization of emoticons, where they came from, and what they mean.
  2. This website suggests ways to convey emotions and tones.
  3. This website describes the use of abbreviations and tags.
  4. This is a guideline for developing earcons.