Calm technology™, refers to the design of technology that makes good use of attention. The term was coined in the 1990s by researchers Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown at Xerox PARC.
As computing devices were becoming more prevalent, Weiser and Brown realized that the constant demand for attention from technology could become overwhelming. They proposed an alternative vision where technology could inform and notify users without monopolizing focus.
This built on the conceptual framework of ubiquitous computing, the idea that electronics and computing capability would someday be so miniaturized as to go unnoticed while still functional in people's everyday lives. Calm technology aligns with this by emphasizing the design of interfaces and devices to better balance engagement between the periphery and center of human attention.
In 2015, Amber Case released a book called Calm Technology that extended the principles of Calm Technology.
I. Technology should require the smallest possible amount of attention
- Technology can communicate, but doesn’t need to speak.
- Create ambient awareness through different senses.
- Communicate information without taking the user out of their environment or task.
II. Technology should inform and create calm
- A person's primary task should not be computing, but being human.
- Give people what they need to solve their problem, and nothing more.
III. Technology should make use of the periphery
- A calm technology will move easily from the periphery of our attention, to the center, and back.
- The periphery is informing without overburdening.
IV. Technology should amplify the best of technology and the best of humanity
- Design for people first.
- Machines shouldn't act like humans.
- Humans shouldn't act like machines.
- Amplify the best part of each.
V. Technology can communicate, but doesn’t need to speak
- Does your product need to rely on voice, or can it use a different communication method?
- Consider how your technology communicates status.
VI. Technology should work even when it fails
- Think about what happens if your technology fails.
- 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
- What is the minimum amount of technology needed to solve the problem?
- Slim the feature set down so that the product does what it needs to do and no more.
- Technology takes time to introduce to humanity.
- What social norms exist that your technology might violate or cause stress on?
- Slowly introduce features so that people have time to get accustomed to the product.
Ways to Think About Calm Technologies
Transition between center and periphery - relevant information should move fluidly between the periphery and focus of the user's attention.
Minimize distraction - aim for a subtle, non-distracting presence in the user's environment.
Informing without overburdening - allow users to process information at their own pace when ready.
Be context aware - devices should auto-regulate based on situational needs and norms.
Well-designed calm technology should provide a sense of situational awareness and connectedness while enabling greater focus on the present moment.
Ambient Orb - a glowing ball that subtly changes color to reflect information like weather forecasts or stock market trends.
Google Now - provides contextual notification cards based on time, location, and interests.
Nest Thermostat - auto-schedules heating and cooling based on inhabitant patterns and preferences.
The rise of LLMs, ubiquitous sensors, and predictive analytics is enabling a new generation of calm technology focused on timely, relevant, and intuitive notifications to aid productivity and well-being. Designers continue exploring how to facilitate the optimum human-computer partnership.
If a technology works well, we can ignore it most of the time. A teapot tells us when it is ready, and is off or quiet the rest of the time. A tea kettle can be set and forgotten, until it sings. It does not draw constant attention to itself until necessary.
Inner Office Window
An inner office window provides an understanding of whether someone is busy or not without the need to interrupt them.
This simple display easily allows one to see whether the restroom on a plane is occupied or not. The message is universal and requires no translation.
Roomba Vacuum Cleaner
Roomba doesn't have a spoken language, just simple tones. This tone-based language makes it easy for anyone to understand what Roomba is saying, and elimates the need to translate the tone into many different languages.
Roomba chirps happily when a task is finished. When Roomba gets stuck or needs cleaning, the device emits a somber tone. Orange and green status lights are secondary display that help communicate status in an unambiguous way.
Sleep Cycle is a mobile application that monitors your sleep and allows you to track times of deep sleep and REM. Set an alarm and Sleep Cycle will wake you up before the time at the best place in your sleep cycle with a soft noise or buzz.
Because the haptic alert occurs under your pillow, you can configure it so that you can wake up without anyone else being affected by the alarm. SleepCycle rewards users with a sleep score, detailing how well they slept that night.
A smart badge is simple. Smart badges are small, wearable technologies that don't require a charger, user interface or operating system.
Simply touch a provisioned smart badge to a door or elevator panel and you'll easily gain access.
Floor navigation, when done well, can quietly show people where to go in unfamiliar spaces when traveling.
Using Bauhaus iconography alongside text can help with quick mental parsing of directions while providing detailed information.