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Home arrow Computer Science arrow Calm Technology. Principles and Patterns for Non-Intrusive Design



l first came across Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown’s work “Designing Calm Technology” in 2005. I was a sophomore in college at the time, and although technology was a passion of mine, my course- work and research were primarily in anthropology—I didn’t yet know how tightly linked the two disciplines actually were . I was just beginning to discover how important an understanding of human behavior was to the design of technology, and specifically, the ways we communicate with our devices

In 2005, smartphones were just entering the landscape, transforming the humble mobile phone from a glorified walkie-talkie into a fully functioning computer that would take all of the challenges of computer user interfaces and amplify them in our daily lives It was this research that led me to eventually write my thesis on smartphones and their impact on human culture During my research I stumbled upon a little-known but breakthrough paper in human-computer interaction from the mid-’90s called “Designing Calm Technology.” It turned out that researchers at Xerox PARC, including technologists and anthropologists from a variety of backgrounds, had been working for years on understanding the impact of technology on people’s behavior and well-being

Their chief concern was how to best design technologies for a future saturated with small devices . I realized that the subject of Calm Technology and the research underlying it were not just about where the Internet was headed, but where our entire society was headed The topic was worth a lot more attention that it had originally received



Xerox PARC Computer Science Laboratory (CSL), circa 1980s, where early Internet pioneer and Lab Director Bob Taylor held informal meetings with laboratory students in beanbag chairs. [1]

Weiser and Brown were at least a decade ahead of their time . They were so far ahead that their work is in danger of being forgotten...precisely at the time we most need it . Weiser was the intellectual father of Ubiquitous Computing . He and Brown first introduced the concept of "Calm Technology” in their 1995 paper, published at Xerox PARC . This is still the term most commonly used to describe it, though it might be more accurate to call it "Calm Interaction,” or simply "Calm Design .”

We need their conceptual framework, their advice, and their research now more than ever, or we will increasingly run into issues like loss of human agency, security, and privacy, not to mention a crisis of bandwidth . None of us wants a future where we continuously update settings for apps we never use, nor do we want to always be on pause while waiting for a bit of technology to fix itself. Weiser said that we wouldn’t be able to interact with future technology the same way that we interact with a desktop computer. That future is now.

In 2005 we were just beginning to see the promise of mobile devices, but back in the ’80s and ’90s, Weiser and Brown envisioned a future full of devices much like our current televisions, smartphones, and tablets: a series of what they called “pads, tabs, and boards .” As time progressed, I realized just how core their insights would be in a world increasingly mediated by technology

My study of cell phones, social cues, and interface design quickly grew into a career in user experience (UX) and interaction design . I eventually realized that most technology gets in the way of people’s lives instead of working with them We’re stuck with heavy applications struggling to work on connected smartphones with minimal battery life . How will a coming era of small devices solve this problem? We’re poised to become even more anxious and overwhelmed, with everything beeping at us

The next decade will nurture a new generation of new connected devices fraught with frustration and complexity Many people speak of an exciting new future of devices, but we haven’t solved the problems in technology we have right now. The promise of the Internet of Things (IoT) is a fallacy if it is unconnected to helping people solve problems. It’s not just a fun thing you can run in your house—it must provide a use . Successful technology for the Internet of Things era will have to become very simple, with minimal interfaces . It is my belief that the future of the Internet of Things will be driven by “Calm Technology”: elegant, humane, and unobtrusive

This book offers some principles for developing the next generation of devices . We need new tools and a new vision to make the Internet of Things work for us, not against us Surprisingly, that vision comes to us from a team that envisaged the future decades ago . I wrote Calm Technology to bring their concepts to light in the current era, so we might learn from them and not unnecessarily repeat their intellectual labor

I will also expand on Weiser and Brown’s ideas by reflecting on what is currently happening in the industry The advantage of our historical perspective is that we can make observations about how technology actually developed in order to test-drive the ideas put forward by these thinkers . Smartphones, modern Internet access, and cheap sensors were only theories in their time, but they still built prototypes of what a future world would look like with them .

We can learn a lot from the conceptual framework of these thinkers by studying how they approached a future world decades before it came to be . In a sense, they were not blinded by what was, so they were able to clearly imagine what could be. They were able to think about the longterm effects of technology in an environment outside of time .

The idea of an unobtrusive technology is not new. It was a century ago that people were thinking about how to harness and create something that would become the first Calm Technology: electricity. Electricity is all around us . It works in the background without actively requiring our attention .

An ideal app or technology is one that becomes invisible in its functioning. It provides us a utility that we need without drawing excessive attention to itself Unlike electricity, much of our current technology breaks without warning, or interrupts us with status or software updates, taking us out of our flow and away from our goals . It stands against us and outside of us .

Though we might think of technology as cold and inhuman, it’s important to remember that technology—for all its exotic idiosyncrasies—is fundamentally human . We designed it as an extension of ourselves . It is time that we smooth that relationship for the next generation

  • [1] Image courtesy of PARC Research, photo credit Xerox PARC; used with permission . viii | PREFACE
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