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Can we calm down the tech?

image of a meditating woman facing a sunset that represents calm technology
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15 minutes

Can we calm down the tech?

Nowadays we’re constantly nudged by alerts and notifications. Pinging phones, vibrating pockets, interrupted dates, constant pop-ups on websites and looking for that ‘infernal cross’ to close yet another banner. And one thing’s for sure -  the amount of notifications we receive isn’t slowing down any time soon.

Now imagine the future - a world where you’re bombarded with a bazillion notifications to the point of absolute information overload and tech rage in 3… 2… 1…  Is there another option? Actually, there is. It’s called Calm Technology.

Photo showing a smartwatch. We live in a world of cross connected smart devices

The current state

We’ve been using computers since 1937 (the Turing Machine) and during the last 80 years they’ve shrunk and multiplied. According to Weiser and Brown, we live in the ‘third wave of computing’. This means that in a few years computers will be everywhere. Ubiquitous computing is imminent.

There’s no doubt that everyday life is becoming more digital and most of us are reliant on technology. You’re probably using a smartphone and a smart band. You might live in a smart house with Alexa greeting you the minute you walk through the door. Your cousin might have a smartwatch and a fridge that orders food for him. Your parents probably own a smart TV and your friends no doubt use a number of social media platforms to stay in touch with you. All of these devices and apps want two things: to help us in our daily lives and to capture our attention.

The scarcest resource isn’t technology, it’s our attention.
Amber Case - Calm Tech propagator

I don’t want to watch the whole series, just one episode!

Many apps have a design pattern that forces users to interact with the product (just think about movie streaming services - they serve up episode after episode, prompting you to ‘binge’ on whatever you’re watching). The model is simple - grab and don’t let go of the users’ attention. And if they don’t use your app? Notify them. It’s because businesses think that user attention equals revenue.

But this is a dead end. Information overload can cause tech rage. Let’s time travel to the year 2030. Imagine that we have tech everywhere - on our clothes, in our workplace, at home and in our body. Now imagine if we designed that new tech the same way that we do right now. Try living the reality from the video below:

What next?

I think that we should rethink the way we create solutions for our users because attention is a limited resource.

 

What is Calm Technology?

It’s a tech that leads to true calm and comfort and should communicate with us only when it will enhance our abilities. The communication design principles are:

  1. Technology should require the smallest possible amount of attention
  2. Technology should inform and create calm 
  3. Technology should make use of the periphery
  4. Technology should amplify the best of technology and the best of humanity
  5. Technology can communicate but doesn’t need to speak
  6. Technology should work even when it fails
  7. The right amount of technology is the minimum needed to solve the problem
  8. Technology should respect social norms

The ‘periphery’ is everything we’re attuned to without attending to it explicitly. It’s like hearing the engine when you’re driving - you don’t always hear it but you’re aware it’s there and you’ll notice if it starts making strange noises.  

You can read more about the principles on the Amber Case Calm Technology website.

Examples of calm technology

Just a few examples of this technology in action:

Shoes with GPS

One of the more interesting ideas are “Sneakairs” from easyJet. You can pair the shoes with your smartphone, which will transmit GPS data to your footwear. Just set the route and you can pop your phone back in your pocket. How does it work? The left or right shoe will vibrate so you know when and where to turn. Awesome, right?

A heart monitor

A nifty device that monitors your heart rate and blood pressure and can send data straight to your doctor. It’s still in development because it’s hard to forecast a heart attack, but many sports bands have the ability to monitor your pulse. So we’re just a few steps away from this tech.

Lavatory Sign

A simple way of informing you if the lavatory booth is occupied or free. It uses the colour red - which is a warning colour in nature.

A photo of an example of calm tech - a lavatory sign

phot. by kafka4prez / Occupied -- the Lavatory door of Thai Airways flight from BKK to PVG / flickr.com / CC BY-SA 2.0 

How to communicate system status

Our brain has developed two attention systems (D.Khanemann, 2012). The first is fast, automatic, intuitive and largely unconscious. The second is slow, deliberate, analytical and consciously effortful.

When designing new solutions we should make use of this. We should decide when we want to notify a user (often less is more), which system (number one or two) we want to engage and how we want to communicate with the user. Many notifications could be sent within the first system so it encourages the user to process the information quickly and won’t interrupt their flow. But very important information should engage the second system.

Calm technology engages both the centre and the periphery of our attention, and in fact moves back and forth between the two.
Weiser and Brown, Designing Calm Technology, 1993

Here are some examples of how  Calm Technology can communicate:

  • Haptic Alert - pressure and vibration, like a smart band informing you you’ve reached your daily goal
  • Status Light - using many different colours in combination with constant/blinking light for example a flashing orange light when the phone is charging
  • Status Tone - simple tones imitating emotions (like a Roomba does)
  • Status Shout - a strong sound that alerts users, like the sound of a boiling kettle
  • Pop-up - only for important information (we all know how some companies use these)
  • Time Trigger - this triggers a notification after a defined time for example when a green LED turns on when a phone is fully charged 
  • Delay or Interrupt - when the status changes this will just delay or interrupt the program

Summary 

When designing, there is a long list of decisions that are crucial for the product and we should add to that list a few very important questions about communication:

  • What is important for the user?
  • What will annoy them?
  • How many notifications is enough?
  • What will the user need to decide on and how do we communicate this?

...and a few more that you would usually ask yourself when interacting with a digital device. But the most important thing is to create good tools that will enhance and broaden our (users) abilities rather than another 24/7 nudging piece of electronic junk.

A good tool is an invisible tool. By invisible, I mean that the tool does not intrude on your consciousness; you focus on the task, not the tool. Eyeglasses are a good tool -- you look at the world, not the eyeglasses. The blind man tapping the cane feels the street, not the cane.
Mark Weiser, The world is not a desktop, 1993
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