Designing a sense of calm into our everyday technologies

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

7 min read

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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.