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[Video] Designing Calm Technology in IoT

September 4, 2019
7 min read

As designers and developers, it’s our job to help create a world where the products we build meet real human needs, and aren’t just added noise to a constantly growing world of distraction.

What is Calm Design and Why Do We Need It?

The world has never been more connected. As far back as 2008, there were more IoT connected devices than human beings. By 2022, the number of IoT devices in the world could reach 50 billion, according to Juniper Research.

There are lots of benefits to the increasing adoption of IoT technology (I should know, since I work at an IoT development firm…). But there’s one big consequence we’ve been choosing to ignore time and time again:

Our attention is being hijacked. 

Across our many connected devices, we’re constantly interrupted by unimportant alerts and tasks masquerading as urgent messages. On top of that, we are constantly having to install yet another app to manage one more little task.

Though there is an increasing amount of technology that requires our attention, the amount of attention we are able to give remains the same. That means it’s on us (or more specifically, it’s on us as designers and developers) to design IoT products so that they help people achieve their goals without getting overly distracted.

That’s where calm design comes in.

Calm Technology/Calm Design: A type of Information Technology where the interaction between the technology and its user is designed to occur in the user’s periphery, rather than constantly at the center of attention.

The term was coined in 1995 by Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) researchers Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown. In describing calm technology, Weiser said:

“The most profound technologies are the ones that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.” 

Calm design is also connected to ubiquitous computing, which is the idea that computers are so much a part of our daily life that we don’t even notice they are there. That’s the ideal IoT experience – one that fits seamlessly into the lives of the people using it.

Calm design is already happening in our daily lives, in ways you might not expect. The way fruit tells you it is ready to eat by the way it ripens. The way you can leave a tea kettle sitting on the stove top and forget about it, until you hear the whistle signaling that it’s ready for you to take action. Visual cues appearing on your car dashboard when you need to change your oil or check your engine. Calm technology is definitely not a new concept.

Principles of Calm Technology

In her book, “Calm Technology” researcher and design leader Amber Case outlines the principles of calm design that she created from her 10-year history in user experience and R&D.

1. Technology should require the smallest possible amount of attention

Have you noticed that every company out there seems to think that they’re the most important, and that their information matters most? It might be a challenge to reframe your thinking in this way – or explain it to leadership – but keep in mind that you’ll be actually more effective by demanding less attention.

2. Technology should inform and create calm

Scare tactics are for bad reality TV shows, not your IoT device. There are other, more calm ways of getting your point across than trying to scare someone into taking action. We’ll review some of those methods below.

3. Technology should make use of the periphery

As humans, we can’t focus on too many things at one time. We have hard limits. Instead of jumping in front of someone’s face, shouting and waving up and down, IoT technology should exist closer to the edge, helping when it’s needed.

4. Technology should amplify the best of technology and the best of humanity

Always design for humans first. Machines and humans are both great, but they’re very different. Don’t pretend humans are machines and don’t pretend machines are humans.

5. Technology can communicate but doesn’t need to speak

Voice AI is getting smarter and smarter the more that we communicate with it. It’s definitely something to think about when you design your product, but make sure voice tech is a good fit for your overall IoT experience before implementing it. Are there other ways your device could communicate with you that could be faster than voice?

6. Technology should work even when it fails

This is one of the hardest things to accomplish with design in general, but a great example of this is the escalator. If an escalator breaks down, it’s not completely useless. It’s a staircase. If your IoT product breaks down, it shouldn’t be rendered completely unusable.

7. The right amount of technology is the minimum needed to solve the problem

There are a lot of complexities around this point, but I like to think about it like this: The more bells and whistles you have on a device, the more susceptible it is to break down.

8. Technology should respect social norms

This principle isn’t saying that you can’t innovate and change the way the world works. Rather, it’s saying that you can’t suddenly decide that green means stop and red means go. You should respect the culture’s social norms so that the tech doesn’t disorient users.

Types of Calm Design Communication Patterns

So what are the different communication patterns that calm design has to offer?

Visual Status Indicators

This is one of the most widely known patterns and is pretty self-explanatory. These could be lights and colors that give you the status of a device. One great example of this is a giant weather ball right next to a busy highway back in my hometown in Michigan. The ball changes color depending on different weather patterns that are about to happen.

Contextual Notifications

A hyper-personalized notification delivered precisely when and where the customer needs it. These types of notifications are often time or location based. A great example of this is Apple’s “Remind me at a location” feature on the iPhone. You can use it to remind yourself to take out the trash when you get home, or get that item you always forget at the grocery store.

Haptic Alerts

Haptic alerts are physical notifications that can be felt on the body, like a gentle buzz from your smartwatch. A great example of this is a company we worked with called Shade. Shade is a company that developed a device to measure your sun exposure throughout the day. It’s a small device that goes on your clothing and vibrates when you have reached your sunlight limit for the day or afternoon. This helps lupus patients prevent flare-ups triggered by overexposure to sunlight.

Status Tones

These are subtle sounds, dings, and even music that could notify a person in a calming way. We react to sound quicker than any other sense, so sound can be a great way to inform the user.

Ambient Awareness (or Peripheral Attention)

Ambient awareness makes use of our peripheral attention and the surrounding environment to display information without overwhelming us.

Status Shouts

Calm technology doesn’t necessarily need to be quiet. Something like a tornado alert, for example, may need to be loud because it’s time-sensitive and related to human safety.

How to Incorporate Calm Tech into Your IoT Experiences

1. Change the Way You Approach a Problem

“Thinking for Calm” is not an added expense when creating a product. It’s just a different, intentional way of thinking. Ask questions like:

  • How can I relay this information without soaking up the person’s attention?
  • Is there a better way besides a text to inform the user?

2. Design for the Environment

Ask yourself what environment the person will be in when the notification takes place. Asleep in bed? In a noisy factory? During their morning commute? Depending on where the user is, a different communication pattern may be more appropriate.

3. Be Realistic with Your Notification Type

It’s easy to think that your notification is the most important thing on the planet and needs your user’s undying attention. But let’s be real – most of them are probably not that important. A tornado alert? Sure. But a 7% discount on an item the user has never expressed interest in? Not so much.

4. Make Sure the Feedback is Instant

If someone completes an action on a device and the response is delayed for even a second, you have instantly made the person feel like something is wrong or feel anxious. They also might try the action again in frustration or confusion, overloading your server as it tries to complete the first request.

5. Don’t Eat All the Cake in One Bite

Instead of focusing on the product as a whole, incorporate calm tech into every feature you are working on. Calm thinking can happen at every stage of design and development.

6. Put the Human First

If the future of tech, and especially IoT, does not put the human first, it will not last in the consumer world. In the last 20 years, we’ve taken huge strides to be a more connected, efficient world. Now, let’s take the next 20 years and try to make them more human.

I really hope this gets your wheels turning on how to apply calm design into your practice.

At Very, we take the practice of human-centered design very seriously. If you’re looking for a partner to help design and develop your project, reach out to our expert team today.