@adlrocha - Calm Technology

Our world is made of information that competes for our attention.

photo of blue and pink sea

In today’s society there are, in my opinion, two resources we are increasingly lacking of: time (obviously, we are all going to die), and our attention (call it attention, will power, brain power, concentration… whatever). And in a time where we need to be “increasingly productive to be successful due to a fierce competition”, where we suffer “a constant information overload”, and where we are flooded by “shinny and exciting new technologies” every other day, we are draining ourselves from these precious and limited resources. To make matter worse, under this scenario where we have to fight the widespread argument that you have to fill in every minute of your day in productive things such as staying informed of the (absurd) things that happen in the world, or as answering as an information gateway every single email you get in your inbox; we have companies fighting for our attention, as their business models are pushing down our throats every piece of information they can in order to sell, manipulate our behaviors, and learn every single detail about us.

To be completely honest, this is a publication I wasn’t quite sure whether to write or not, as it ended up being a really personal and subjective reflection. But what the heck! After my “Deep or Tweet” article from a few weeks ago, you may have already realized that I am a bit obsessed with the (in my opinion) evident harms and brain rewiring we suffer from new technologies when used impulsively without their key utility, drawbacks and risks in mind. A few days ago I came across a concept every engineer (potentially out of the FAANG orbit, of course) should be aware of, so I wanted to briefly share it with all of you.

Calm Technology

How can we use technology as tools instead of letting our technology use us?

When we design products, we aim to choose the best position for user interface components, placing the most important ones in the most accessible places on the screen.

Equally important is the design of communication. How many are notifications are necessary? How and when should they be displayed? To answer this, we can be inspired by the principles of calm technology.

When I read for the first time this description from Calm Technology’s official site it was like a breath of fresh air to my “fuck technology just for the sake of selling” obsession(*¹). To my surprise, there were people out there even more worried than me in building technologies that better people lives in a sustainable and respecting way, and not just generating new needs, solving minor “itches” in exchange for your soul, or directly adding burden, stress and shallowness to your daily routine. Even more, the “people” pushing this new movement weren’t just a few alienated strangers, but a former CTO from Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, a Chief Scientist from Xerox and a brilliant (computerized) cartoonist.

(*¹) Let me clarify this point, I don’t believe we shouldn’t profit from the development of new technologies. What I am saying is these developments should be designed having a clear need or problem in mind, and not just be used as selling tools. Too idealistic? Definitely. Fortunately, paper holds everything.

The Concept

I was planning to define by myself what I understood by calm technology, but then I found this definition that couldn’t explain better what this movement is about, and its underlying motivation:

The terms “calm computing” and “calm technology” were coined in 1995 by PARC Researchers Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown in reaction to the increasing complexities that information technologies were creating. He felt that the promise of computing systems was that they might “simplify complexities, not introduce new ones.”

Weiser believed that this would lead to an era of “calm technology,” in which technology, rather than panicking us, would help us focus on the things that were really important to us. […] Their work can help us understand what we need to implement to handle the increasing complexity of the world.

These three individuals were at the beginning of exploring how our everyday lives would work in the future. Together and with others at Xerox PARC they explored the future of the interface, society and created a miniature implementation of the future.

-@caseorganic, 2014

“It would lead to an era where technology would help us focus on the things that were really important to us.”. For me, this is the key reason why it is worth exploring and developing a set of principles for calmer technologies. My feeling is that new technological developments have rewired our brains so we prioritize wasting our attention in them and not to the things we really want in life (or at least the ones that we REALLY want to pursue, not the ones someone or something is pushing down our throats).

Let’s take myself as a brief example. If what I want to focus on in life is my family, to read, write and create new things, why I was used to spend hours a day swiping down my Twitter timeline in order not to miss a thing and be completely up to date with the new technical developments neglecting my priorities? Because Twitter (and all of his relatives) has been designed to be addictive as fuck, distracting us from the important. Instead of swiping down I could be coding my new masterpiece. Instead of keeping myself up to date with new technological developments I could be shaping them. I am not saying these technologies are not useful (because they are), what I am saying is that they have been designed in a very intrusive and addictive way, without prioritizing our needs but the one from the companies behind them.

The Principles

Enough with the concept! I have convinced you (or not) of our need to develop calmer technologies. How can we do that? Well, there are a set of principles running around to help us guide us in the development of calm technology:

I. Technology should require the smallest possible amount of attention
a. Technology can communicate, but doesn’t need to speak.
b. Create ambient awareness through different senses.
c. Communicate information without taking the wearer out of their environment or task.

II. Technology should inform and create calm
a. A person's primary task should not be computing, but being human.
b. Give people what they need to solve their problem, and nothing more.

III. Technology should make use of the periphery
a. A calm technology will move easily from the periphery of our attention, to the center, and back.
b. The periphery is informing without overburdening.

IV. Technology should amplify the best of technology and the best of humanity
a. Design for people first.
b. Machines shouldn't act like humans.
c. Humans shouldn't act like machines.
d. Amplify the best part of each.

V. Technology can communicate, but doesn’t need to speak
a. Does your product need to rely on voice, or can it use a different communication method?
b. Consider how your technology communicates status.

VI. Technology should work even when it fails
a. Think about what happens if your technology fails.
b. Does it default to a usable state or does it break down completely?

VII. The right amount of technology is the minimum needed to solve the problem
a. What is the minimum amount of technology needed to solve the problem?
b. Slim the feature set down so that the product does what it needs to do and no more.

VIII. Technology should respect social norms
a. Technology takes time to introduce to humanity.
b. What social norms exist that your technology might violate or cause stress on?
c. Slowly introduce features so that people have time to get accustomed to the product.

Calm In Practice

I agree with you! The best way of learning a new concept is by applying it. Let’s see some examples of calm technologies:

I know, I know! These were pretty obvious. This exercise may be a bit more interesting:

Exercise: A Year-Long Battery

Design a product that has a year-long battery life and tells you when the battery is wearing out. One of the core issues in the so-called Internet of Things is the tendency to make visually exciting objects with bright, full-color displays that are extremely battery-intensive. Unlike a digital watch that can be counted on to work for years, these devices have to be charged weekly, daily, or in some cases, multiple times a day.

This is an exercise in minimalism. How do you design an object that uses the least amount of battery life and the lowest resolution of alert or display to get the same point across in a more elegant way than a full-resolution color display would?

Charging a device detracts from its calmness. Having to charge something interrupts usage and can lead to inconvenient or even dangerous situations, such as a phone that runs out of battery when you’re lost, causing panic. And while there are less intrusive ways to charge devices (e.g., inductive charging by pad for a toothbrush or a phone), this is often a problem that doesn’t need to be there in the first place. Replacing a full-color display with something simpler reduces its battery draw, but it also contributes to a calmer user experience. In many cases, it also reduces time to market, cuts production costs, and eliminates points of failure.

Part A

Choose a single app on your smartphone, and design a standalone device that serves the same function (e.g., calendar, camera, digital notebook, stopwatch, boarding pass, digital wallet, etc.). The device, however, must be portable, and must last approximately one year on a single battery charge, so it cannot support a color display. Here are some considerations:

  • What is the bare minimum of information that needs to be displayed in order for the device to fill its purpose?

  • How can you use simple visual alerts (LEDs, E Ink, alphanumeric displays, etc.) and/or simple audio tones to convey useful information to the user (haptics are too power-hungry)? It need not give all the detail that a smartphone app does, only what’s useful to know at a short glance — a calendar, for example, could simply show which hours of the day you are busy.

  • What would be the ideal form factor for your device? Is it wearable? Does it attach to something else? Does it go in your pocket?

Part B

Now that you’ve designed the device, determine how it communicates its current battery status. Remember, it’s a device that lasts a year on a charge, so the indicator need only ensure that the device doesn’t go dead unexpectedly, but it should do so in a way that doesn’t significantly deplete battery life. Consider different lights and tones (haptics, again, are too power-hungry for this scenario).

Wrap up!

Winning the battle against intrusive technologies fighting for our attention may come through the design of calmer technologies. I myself will have the calm technology principles the next time I build a new user-oriented system. Let’s see how easy (and useful) is to apply it to real environments. In the meantime, I will keep working to find schemes that (whenever possible) minimize the harming effects of technology in my life.

I you want to learn more about calm technologies, visit this website, or read the book.