Calm Technology In The Era of Experience Design

Technology is intrusive. It beeps, buzzes and flashes, constantly trying to get our attention. It interrupts us when we’re eating dinner with our loved ones and pushes notifications at us until it succeeds in completely stealing our conversation away.

We’re in relationships with our devices and they don’t want us to forget about it. They nag and they nip, shouting about their newest innovations while others flash their latest features at us, tempting us with their flirtation. Our eyes wander to what’s next whether we want them to or not, and before we know it we can barely breathe over the clatter.

It’s official: tech is the deity of distraction.

This why Amber Case, a cyborg anthropologist and author of Calm Technology: Principles and Patterns For Non-Intrusive Design, has picked up where scholars before her left off, building on a theory that’s more than 20 years old yet is more relevant than ever. She has adapted the approach to tie it more specifically to the design challenges of today and the way users experience technology.

“It was a perspective that was created outside of our current time period and it was classic,” Case said over the phone from Boston, where she has just begun a fellowship at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. “It was something universal about humans and technology.”

Calm Technology Gets An Upgrade

Calm technology is this idea that tech should complement and inform our lives to the extent we barely notice its existence, a concept dreamed up at Xerox PARC (since spun off into its own company called PARC) some 20 years ago by chief researchers Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown.

The late Weiser coined the term ubiquitous computing back in 1988. He must have had a looking glass into the future when he declared that, “The scarce resource of the 21st century will not be technology; it will be attention.”

The lab was full of connected devices that demanded the researchers’ attention and they could see early on the potential pitfalls of this style of computing. Weiser and Seely Brown first introduced the concept of calm technology in an article published in 1995. In it, they identified three core principles that Case has since extracted and expanded upon.

The Principles of Calm Technology

The original principles of calm technology focused on periphery and an overall sense of familiarity. The researches argued that elements that move in and out of our peripheral can inform and empower us in an almost effortless fashion, citing the example of a driver whose primary focus is on the road and thus he ignores the sound of the engine, until the engine sounds unusual.

This approach is magnified in Case’s expanded principles, but she also brings in contemporary design factors.

“I’m mostly trying to glean what the original authors were trying to get at and trying to address some of the issues I keep seeing today,” Case said.

The New Principles of Calm Technology

These are the principles of calm technology as presented by Amber Case:

  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.

Case says the best way to make your technology calmer is to design for humans first.

“If you try to make something that acts like a human, you end up putting people on pause and having them act like a computer, like when you talk to Siri and you don’t have the perfect San Francisco accent and you end up having to enunciate and sound like a computer in order to get Siri to understand you,” she said.

Calm technology means we don’t need to change anything about our day-to-day behaviors to have successful experiences. It also means keeping things simple and considering user issues like bandwidth, connectivity, accessibility and data limits. It’s about respecting a user’s time and building products they actually want to use.

She gives the example of the banking app Simple, which allows users to text through the app when they have an issue. The customer service team then looks into it on their behalf, including finding statements, updating their account and so on. The user doesn’t have to worry about the complexities of banking or even navigating through the app. Instead, Simple answers their questions without interrupting their lives.

The World Is Not A Desktop

Weiser asked designers back in 1993 to consider that the world is not a flat screen. And yet, says Case, designers continue to make apps as if they’re being experienced on desktops.

“We make so much use of our visual attention that we forget that there are so many other attentions that we can use. The exciting part is we can compress a lot of this attention into different senses. Instead of a full color display with a battery, we can have a small light like on a Roomba vacuum cleaner,” Case said.

She sees this as an opportunity, not a restriction, and reminds designers to consider simple, useful resources like Craigslist, which serve as good examples of a product that works regardless of user limitations. It may not look pretty, but it’s practical.

“A lot of people end up going to Craigslist at some point in their life and it works on a 14 4k modem out in Nebraska or in a public library in New York on your phone,” she said.

The Industrial Revolution of the Modern Age Will Be Mundane

If this all sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve been here before, first through the industrial revolution and then through the electrical revolution. There are undeniable parallels.

“Electricity was a thing that was very exciting,” Case said. “Everyone was making new applications for electricity from the iron to the stove. Think of all those new appliances and the buttons and the beeps on those and how everybody had to have them in their homes. After a while it became normal. Those pieces became mundane pieces of your kitchen, or your house. Electricity became this calm technology. It was invisible. It ran through your house and was just expected to be there.

“Now we’re on a frontier of the same thing where we have all these devices being connected on this web and it’s really exciting. We have all these tradeshows for it, but the stuff that people end up using and relying on, it’s not going to be exciting. It’s going to be mundane. It’s going to be part of our lives,” She said.

Just like Weiser predicted when he said:

“The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.”