Calm technology is a theory of design that believes technology has its time and its place. There when you need it not when you don’t. It shouldn’t overwhelm us or demand our attention, should remain at the periphery of our vision and not interfere with our personal relationships. It should work for us, not the other way around.
The term was coined by Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown, in 1996 for their book, The Coming Age of Calm Technology, but has since gone on to mean many different things to different designers. Personally, I find the term comforting and soothing. And that’s partly the point of calm technology. Our lives are hectic and difficult enough. Why would we create and use technology that adds to this complexity rather than reduces it?
We love technology but does it love us back?
Technology is all around us. In the last 20 years our day-by-day, even hour-by-hour interactions with technology have grown exponentially. We access news via the internet, keep in touch with friends and loved ones via video and messaging, we shop and plan our meals with tech and give technology executive permission to do things on our behalf. At the end of the day (which for many begins and ends with a quick check of our phones) we sometimes feel drained and overwhelmed.
This is because of a phenomenon known as 'cognitive load'. We humans are not supercomputers with unlimited possible computations per second. We are relatively simple devices. When the load gets too high our brains take shortcuts, make mistakes, decide not to make a decision at all and well feel stress. Essentially, technology should reduce this load and never increase it.
By 2025, there will be approximately 75 Billion IOT devices connected. As designers, it is our job to have complete control over the services we design. And if we consciously go about our work with this in mind, we can create a world where technology is a joy. Can you imagine a world where we only ever feel thankful for technology? Is it possible? Of course, it is.
Let’s take stock of today’s Calm Technology progress
There are many cases of cutting edge Calm Technology, take for example Amazon Go, where you can walk in, walk out and never have to think about paying or scanning. There are also Quick Response Codes, which have been around for years but allow interested persons to quickly access more data at their convenience. The new Samsung Frame TV is perfect for people who want to sit in their living room without a TV always there. However, other less obvious varieties of calm technologies have been around for much longer.
Both the landline telephone and the kettle could be considered calm – there when you need them not when you don’t. But how about mobile phones? Do they offer the same service? Most users would argue, no. And what about the new resurgence in QRC were retailers are implementing schemes which prompt shoppers to tally-up their bill to make check-out faster. Is having to scan your own products, and use QRC for possible coupons – when not doing so may mean missing discounts but always means more targeted advertising – is this Calm Technology? Does it reduce the cognitive load?
There are other examples where Calm Technology is making headway in certain sectors but is not quite there yet. This is a Goldilocks Zone in Calm. Yes, Amazon Go is very close to achieving this (some still feel the Big Brother aspect of the store too much to handle), but other services like ATMs offering the full spectrum of banking, or chatbot helplines are failing miserably. We have to ask - at what point do these technologies become worth the hassle? Should we implement them while still in this Beta testing phase? I think you know the answer to this.
Going forward into the calm
Most of us would agree smartphones are a wonder. All the information the world has to offer, practically, at our fingertips. However, the mobile phone is far from calm. It is invasive. We know this because we feel driven to use them constantly, while watching movies, talking to other people, sometimes even when driving a car. Some of this is screen time addiction, but some of it is a lack of calm design.
When you get a message on your phone, it doesn’t require you to open the phone to read the message, it shows you it for a minute. And this is the case whether it’s an important message from your partner or yet another Whatsapp group. In the night time, the phone may light up unless we set up a ‘do not disturb’. Even if we’re busy, we may see and compute an unwanted message. It may be something we feel compelled to respond to even though we have no time, whereas the original low-fi landline was often ignored if it rang during dinner.
Another thing we so often overlook, is what happens when our smartphones fail us? Whether it’s a dead battery just as we’re getting on a plane and need to scan our boarding pass or an accidentally deleted number we would have written down in a Filofax thirty years ago. Some technology can be used even when it’s broken. The escalator is a good example of this but a biometric entry – not so much.
The future of Calm Technology
Solving the issues around the technology in our lives is an ongoing process. Working out how to make a smartphone that never lets you down, never interferes and never tempts you away from a more meaningful life is a tough call. However, I think one rule of Calm Technology will soon become the most important.
Calm Technology is only ever really calm if we don’t have to manage it – or even think about it. Calm Technology is the smart fridge which is always full and never wastes food, it’s the grocery store which knows what you want and gives it to you bagged up and ready to go. And the technologies behind this definition of Calm Technology is a Service Design question.
It asks, what do customers and service users want? What are the things they want that they don’t even know they want? How can we uncover their pain points and design technology to ensure these are always avoided?
In the end, I believe understanding Calm Technology is not really about being able to design bigger, better, faster tech, but being able to understand people. Calm technology is the space were humans and technology meet.