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


Have you ever wondered whether something was done or not? How far you are into a road trip? If the oven is preheated or not? Whether a team has scored another point in a game? Calm Technology can answer such questions by giving you information in an unobtrusive way

Don’t think of “look at me, I need your attention,” but rather “this task is done,” “this person is here,” “this person is on their way,” or even “your Uber is arriving now. ” Technology can create calm by letting you know definitively that a system is functioning correctly and all is well . The calm comes from knowing that you will be alerted at the appropriate time if something needs to be addressed .

The Uber example is especially useful, because it cuts down on the uncertainty of when the Uber is going to get there . You call, put the phone in your pocket, and forget about it; the app buzzes when the car is approaching . In a similar way, the “your package has arrived” message from Amazon is helpful for letting you know it’s time to go home and pick it up, or that you should look out for it when you get home, or simply to open the front door.

In fact, most information that comes from devices can be presented in a calm way. This is just a matter of good design . Don’t believe me? Think how much free-floating anxiety you could avoid with a simple system that accurately indicates that your whole complex system is running just fine, so you actually don’t need to worry about it until it tells you it needs attention .

Think of how many things in your life just happen without you noticing: water when you turn on the faucet, the lights when you flip a switch, the realization that a friend is online given by a green indicator in Skype or Google Chat (Figure 2-2) . All of these are technologies that are calm because they have evolved to work with us in our everyday lives with the least amount of friction .


Status indicators for available, away from computer, and offline on an online messaging system.

A shrill alert yanks you out of your current task and requires you to refocus attention on something new. Sometimes experiences should be uncalm and unnerving, like a fire alarm or a tornado warning . These are designed specifically to change your tempo—they interrupt so that you can get out of the building . They interrupt your life for the purpose of saving your life.

Before you design a notification, ask yourself where the person will be using the product or service . How does their environment come into play? Is the environment quiet or loud? Is it public or private?

Then you're ready to ask how the technology will communicate . Is there a way you can inform the user without distracting from their primary focus? Also ask what might happen if the primary alert fails . Can you design an alert with redundancy?

All of these considerations add to your task as a designer. But properly done, design will remove the burden of tasks from the user, which is the goal of Calm Technology. [1]

inform your primary task (in this case, driving) and give you a sense of calm while you do something else . A calm experience does not demand your full attention .

The periphery of our attention is important because we can’t focus our attention on many different things at once . We have high-resolution perception in front of our faces, directly in line with our vision, and that resolution degrades as we move off to the sides . We can, however, hear sounds, see shapes, and feel objects without having to directly look at them . The focus directly in front of us is limited to our sight and sometimes our touch, but there are many more layers to our spectrum of perception than just sight

The truth is most of the information we need from technology doesn’t have to be high resolution to be useful . When a technology forces a low-resolution update into the high-resolution space of your full attention, it wastes your time, attention, and patience. This is why it’s crucial, when building a piece of technology, to consider whether the update you’re trying to get across is actually a high-resolution or low-resolution one . Does it require the user’s whole attention, or can you get it across with a lower resolution alert type?

Driving is a prime example of this principle in action . Over many decades, we’ve evolved the car driver’s environment into a complex, multisensory, largely peripheral interface . Honks are sound; the vehicle moving forward is something we feel, as are the pedals we use with our feet, without having to look at them

We see lights turn red or green, or stop signs and other road signs right in front of us because they are the punctuation of traffic and require our attention . But we can still sense where cars are around us The mirrors in the vehicle help us glance at our periphery to see cars behind and to the sides of us, allowing us to get relevant information without having to stop our primary task of watching the road and controlling the car

Lights that tell us about the engine turn on only when relevant . They are not on all of the time We can switch on a turn signal while driving or turn on the stereo simply by feeling for it Using touch, sound, and peripheral vision opens up our sight to focus entirely on the road while doing secondary tasks in our periphery.

  • [1] TECHNOLOGY SHOULD MAKE USE OF THE PERIPHERY A calm technology engages both the center and the periphery of ourattention, and in fact moves back and forth between the two. MARK WEISER AND JOHN SEELY BROWN, “THECOMING AGE OF CALM TECHNOLOGY” A calm experience is when you're performing a primary task andan alert shows up in your periphery, like the dashboard light indicating you need to fill up the gas tank, or the one telling you you'retoo close to the side of the road . Indications like these improve or
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