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7 min read

Designing a sense of calm into our everyday technologies

Calm technology calls for interactions with products that are neither distracting nor over-demanding of our attention.

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By 2030, an estimated 50 billion devices will connect to the internet. That's at least five devices for every person in the world!


We'll see gadgets ranging from parking spots that advertise their vacancies, to clothing items that inform us when they're back in stock, to pet collars that notify us of our pet's health.


In fact, many of these things already exist today. They're connected to the internet and to each other through a massive network called the Internet of Things (IoT), which doesn’t require human interaction in order to work. With advances in hardware and software technology, we'll start to see more objects around us with embedded computing. They'll provide easier and more convenient ways to do things than ever before.


But this also comes with unique design challenges. When we have devices all around us, how might we ensure they’re not a constant distraction? Many interfaces today capture and hold our attention, while distracting us from other necessary tasks. One way to minimize these distractions might be to take a more mindful approach to our technology use through digital wellness.


Another approach is to design these devices to fit quietly and harmoniously into our everyday lives right from the start. That’s where calm technology comes in.



What is calm technology?


First coined by Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown in their 1996 paper, calm technology interacts with us through designs that “encalm and inform”. It operates alongside our peripheral awareness, engaging our full attention only when needed, or when we choose to interact with the technology directly.


Calm tech aims to help us feel serene and in control as devices and information technology become a more integral part of our daily lives.


This concept became known in recent years through design advocate Amber Case's book Calm Technology. In her book, Case describes electricity as a prime example of calm technology. It works reliably in the background, available for use when you need it, and invisible when you don't. Its presence facilitates human activity, from powering our homes and our transport, to making communication possible around the world, while requiring very little of our attention in return.


When technology is reliable, invisible, and enables human activity, it creates a sense of calm in our everyday lives.


Before exploring these aspects in detail, let's look at why calm technology is an important consideration today.



How might our devices convey information without overwhelming our senses or disrupting our daily activities? Or in other words, how can tech help make our life easier, without becoming its own burden?


We’re entering an era of ubiquitous computing


When computers first appeared as mainframes between 1940-1980, they operated through a team of technically-proficient experts. During that era, computers were a scarce resource shared between groups of people.


By the late 1980s, personal computing became the dominant trend. Computers were personal objects, holding our individual information and requiring considerable attention to use. People interacted deeply and directly with their own personal laptops and desktops.


In recent years, we've entered an era of ubiquitous computing. We can access the internet from a number of everyday devices, including a wearable device that downloads popular running routes, or a coffee maker that can re-order coffee beans for us. We can communicate with faraway devices for tracking a package in the mail, or to see if our train is arriving to the station on time.


Through connected devices, we have access to more information than ever before. But we also have more devices vying for our attention than we ever did. The challenge is to consider how these devices might convey information without overwhelming our senses or disrupting our daily activities. Or in other words, how can tech help make our life easier, without becoming its own burden?


Let’s explore the qualities of calm technology — reliable, invisible, and facilitating of human activity — more in depth below.



The 3 qualities of calm technology



1. Calm tech is reliable. It works even when it fails


We've all been there. A device fails or malfunctions, and we find ourselves caught in an unpleasant situation.


We might be stuck in a parking garage because the ticket machine stops working. Or we might be stranded outside a building because the electronic lock no longer functions. When systems are entirely automated, we can find ourselves in situations with no human operator to help us.


When it comes to devices that we rely on daily, it’s important to design fallbacks that allow them to work even in case they break down. This means a device should work reliably, and offer an alternative in case it fails.


When Nest thermometers malfunctioned due to a bug in their software update, households were left without any heat in the middle of winter. The software glitch drained the thermostat's battery and deactivated many home heating systems across the U.S.


Without alternative ways to control their heating systems, customers had to rely on the manufacturer for tech support. A small glitch led to a major disruption in people's lives and reduced their confidence in the ability of connected devices to work reliably.


It’s not always possible to predict such random events, or to consider every possible edge case when designing a system. However, while difficult to foresee, malfunctions and security breaches are likely to happen. This is especially true when there are complex interdependencies with other devices in the same ecosystem.


That’s why we shouldn’t aim to design products that never fail. Rather, we might aim to design products that fail well.


One way to do this is to design fallbacks that enable the system to work, even when it malfunctions. Take escalators, for example. When they stop working, we can still use them as stairs. Escalators rarely leave us stuck without an alternative route of action.


For connected household devices, such as a thermostat, a fallback design might be to provide analog controls. The controls allow you to access the device's basic functionality, even if it goes offline. With an electronic door lock, for example, it might be that a key, keypad, or fingerprint allows you to unlock the door even if the device loses its wireless connection.


When we rely on connected devices to manage our daily lives, it can be disruptive when they stop working. By designing ways for our devices to fail well, we can instill a sense of calm in users, ensuring that the product will always remain available and helpful for them, even when things go wrong.



Two people using escalators
Escalators are reliable because even when they malfunction, they can still be used as stairs.


2. Calm tech is invisible. It works in our periphery


When we have devices all around us shouting for our attention, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and distracted. Especially when there’s a constant flow of information—expressed as beeps, buzzes, and visual alerts—we can spend all day attending to non-urgent tasks.


Many interfaces today are designed with visual interactions that excite and hold our attention. This means we’re often interrupted by information that we don’t really need. What’s important becomes indistinguishable from what isn’t. A social media notification might capture our attention in just the same way that a critical weather warning might interrupt us from our current task.


Calm technology advocates that we reconsider what information is truly important. Non-critical messages can be redesigned to inform us quietly and invisibly within our peripheral environment.


“Much of our mental processing is already attuned to peripheral cues without attending to them explicitly,” says Weiser and Brown in their paper, The Coming Age of Calm Technology. Redesigning non-critical information to exist in these spaces would allow us to stay informed and process information without the high mental cost.


An example of this is Apple’s AirPods. They let us know that they’re working and connected with a brief and melodic chime. A more intrusive signal might be a robotic voice in your ear announcing that your headphones are connected, or a pop-up notification on your device with text informing you that your headset is working. In each instance, we’re receiving the same amount of information. Yet, the chime is likely to be more calming, as we can recognize it using our peripheral awareness.


Calm designs stay in the background until we’re required to take action, or when it’s necessary to divert our attention to an important message. A battery status indicator, for instance, stays quietly in our periphery. It shows how much power we have left on our device, only turning red when the battery power is low. At that point, we might get a pop-up alert or a warning sound telling us to plug in our device. The design informs quietly within our environment, until it demands our attention when the message becomes vital.



Four steps of a  battery status indicator in a mobile phone
A battery status indicator usually stays in the periphery, only calling for our attention when most needed.


3. Calm tech facilitates human activity. It celebrates our humanity


Calm technology integrates harmoniously into our lives, and helps facilitate the activities that make us human. Technology that’s uncalm does the contrary: it challenges existing social norms in a way that causes fear or discomfort.


An often-cited example of this is Google Glass. At first launch, Glass was only available to select developers and users. It was both exclusive and secretive, and it launched with tons of features all at once.


Most people, unfamiliar with what Glass could do, assumed it was recording all the time, since it didn’t have a red recording light. Yet, in reality, the glasses couldn’t record for more than 15-20 minutes without overheating or running out of power, as Case describes in her book, Calm Technology.


Nonetheless, Google Glass seemed to violate a sense of privacy that people expected, causing a feeling of discomfort and the sense that social norms have been broken.


Calm technology advocates that we design with social norms in mind, understanding how we adopt and become accustomed to new technologies.


It typically takes time for people to get used to a new technology, at which point it becomes invisible and unremarkable. So one approach might be to introduce new technologies by launching only a small set of features at a time.


Self-driving cars are a great example of this gradual introduction of new capabilities. According to a 2019 survey by J.D. Power and SurveyMonkey, consumer confidence in self-driving cars has been generally low. With the incremental introduction of self-driving technology, consumers can experience a few novel features at a time. It's a more calming experience to first understand how the cameras and sensors work. Then we can slowly adapt to new features that correct our driving behavior, making us more receptive when entire driving tasks are automated for us later on.


By taking a gradual approach, manufacturers can avoid introducing something too foreign, too quickly. Novelty requires a steady process so that we can expand our definition of what’s normal.


Calm technology respects our ideas about what’s socially acceptable, even as it strives to change that definition. It integrates harmoniously into our lives, as it aims to facilitate more human activities beyond what we can expect or imagine.





Final thoughts


It's not necessary for all technology to be calm. In fact, designs for video games and concert experiences should generally aim to capture our attention. Yet, many of the devices and appliances in our everyday lives can be designed with a more calming effect in mind, that’s respectful of the users’ life and needs.


As more connected devices enter our lives, we can look to the qualities of calm technology—reliability, invisibility, and facilitating human activity—to design objects that inform us when we need them, and remain an unobtrusive part of our daily lives when we don’t.