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Principles of Calm Technology

The principles of Calm Technology are not hard-and-fast rules . You might find that some principles are more applicable to the specific product or service you are building, and that others are not applicable at all—a fire alarm system, for example, should command your full attention (when it’s alerting you to an actual fire, anyway) . Not every tech project needs all eight; principles I through IV might not come into play, while principles V through VIII do . But as we move into a future crowded with new environments and edge cases, with unpredictable connectivity, more and more categories of product are going to benefit from these principles . And keeping these ideas in mind when making early design decisions could well reduce usability issues you encounter when products first launch [1]

When you sit down in front of a workstation, your primary focus is on the machine in front of you, and nothing else . And while this works well for the increasingly narrow slice of technological interaction that is strictly productivity-minded, it’s a terrible paradigm for the massively parallel, mobile, multiplatform environment that most of us inhabit today

Today we have enough mobile technology making demands on our attention that it is literally impossible to interact with everything as if it were a desktop device . And it’s not necessary: the fact is that most of what we use technology for doesn’t explicitly require our full attention, and if it does, it doesn’t require it for long . Sitting down, booting up a machine, loading a mail program and clicking on your inbox just to see if anyone sent you a note made sense in 1999, but today it makes about as much sense as sitting someone down in a dedicated conversation room just so you can say “hi.”

Attention is still not a widespread consideration in design, because it wasn’t nearly as crucial an issue in the desktop computing era that defined so much of what we know about human-computer interaction . Most technology right now is still designed like a desktop machine, to some degree . It forces you to focus all of your attention on it in order to receive any useful information . Unlike an oven or a teapot, it makes use of visual feedback on screens instead of tones or other audio-based alerts, making it difficult to do other things at the same time We take for granted that you can set an oven to preheat and then walk away, but imagine if you had to stare at it the entire time!

A lot of our connected technology doesn’t “just work” right out of the

box, despite the advances we’ve made in recent decades It must first be hooked up to a network or Bluetooth. It may need an update before it even starts, and then additional updates almost continually, each requiring you to break from your task or retrieve pieces of information, and often changing the user interface without your permission or knowledge, forcing you to relearn the application all over again

The power cord for a MacBook doesn’t need an interface to tell you when it is charging; you can open the laptop and see the indicator on the screen, but the charging indicator is built right into the cord (see Figure 2-1). In this case, the visual display is the secondary information system of the product (the primary one is the light indicator) . You can get more information from the display, but the single most relevant and useful piece of information is available at a glance . Consider doing away with an interface or screen entirely, replacing it with physical buttons or lights.


The indicator light on the MacBook power cord turns green when the computer is connected to a power source; it turns orange when the laptop is charging.

A video camera utilizes a very small light to show whether the camera is recording or not . The light is off by default, but when it's on, it tells both the user and the subject that recording is taking place . Google Glass didn't have one of these indicator lights for recording, leading people to be unnerved by the tech . When it's uncertain whether something is operating—especially if it's recording information—people tend to assume that it is

Light is not the only alert style you might use . We'll get into a complete catalog of indicator types in the next chapter, but think about audio . Sometimes it's more informative to use a buzz as an alert, or a calm tone . Consider the environment in which the technology is likely to be used . Is it noisy? Crowded? Will the user be constrained from looking

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2. PRINCIPLES OF CALM TECHNOLOGY at the device? Think about using vibration when the user needs an indicator, but nobody else does . They’ll be likely to feel the vibrating device, even if the environment is noisy.

Conversely, will the device be used in a calm, quiet environment? Use a calm tone to indicate status without unnecessary disruption, but at the same time, take advantage of the quiet in order to carry the message across . This kind of alert works well on a washer or dryer in a home: loud enough to be heard unambiguously in other rooms in the house, but not shrill enough to disturb the peace

  • [1] TECHNOLOGY SHOULD REQUIRE THE SMALLESTPOSSIBLE AMOUNT OF ATTENTION As we’ve already discussed, attention overload is now the single biggest bottleneck most technologies face, and the strongest argument formaking technology “calm . ” The more things you have to pay attentionto, the less mental space you have available for actually getting thingsdone, and the more stressful those interactions are going to be Ideally, technology should allow us to shift our attention to it verybriefly, get the information we need, and shift back, letting us attendto more things in our environment without being overwhelmed Whenbuilding technology, we should strive to communicate information to theuser without interrupting or distracting them from their primary goal
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