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Calm technology: a humane approach to product design

Calm technology illustration by Alice Korenyouk

“It’s complicated” doesn’t even begin to describe most of our relationship statuses with our smartphones. On the one hand, any queue or bus ride can instantly be made more productive, entertaining or educational with a little help from our smartphone friends. We can check emails on-the-go, listen to a podcast en route to work, or have a quick look at the news while waiting in line for an appointment.

But like every love-hate relationship, there’s a definite downside. The busy, blaring screen is generally the last thing we see before going to bed and the first thing we see in the morning. Any fleeting sensation of boredom is instantly dulled by browsing through our never-ending feeds. There’s a constant pressure to be available one hundred percent of the time, and if we don’t answer the phone - panic arises amongst our loved ones.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at our use of technology, focusing on how we can create more mindful products. Hopefully, these ideas will help spark a shift in the way we create a website, make apps or other digital products, with the aim of building a better relationship with tech in the future.

How can we use tech in a more positive way?

Throwing our phones into the abyss isn’t exactly a viable option at this point - we’re too deep into the relationship for that. However, we can try playing in the middle ground. For example, we can delete certain apps from our phones, purchase an actual alarm clock, monitor our overall screen time and utilize other digital wellness capabilities.

But still, it often feels like as consumers, there’s only so much we can do to use our smartphones more mindfully. All too often, the urge to keep scrolling, keep watching, keep listening, is simply stronger than us. It’s not that we’re weak-minded (maybe there’s a bit of that, too), but the truth is that many apps are made in such a way that makes it very difficult not to get addicted.

That’s why the real change needs to come from the people behind the technology and UX design. While there’s a growing awareness of the importance of making websites accessible, the subject of ethics in the world of tech and design doesn’t end there. It’s up to today’s UX and product designers, developers, creative directors and product managers, to help us improve inclusive design that will help us craft a healthy relationship with technology.

As well as asking how we can be more mindful in the way we consume technology, the other question we should be asking is “how can technology be designed in a more mindful manner?”

What is calm technology?

Enter: calm technology. In short, this is the practice of creating digital products that are unobtrusive and humane. These products should be there when we need them and “disappear” when we don’t. They should complement our lives, rather than take over our lives. Like a smoke detector, for example, that camouflages into the ceiling 99.9% of the time and only alerts us of danger when necessary.

The term “calm technology” was coined by Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown back in 1996, when they published a paper called The Coming Age of Calm Technology. Since then, Amber Case has taken it further, developing the concept to fit the current day and age, and creating a set of calm technology principles.

While human-centered design is by now a well-known concept, some industry leaders are taking it a step further to raise awareness of the need for ethics and humanity in technology. One prominent voice on the matter is that of Tristan Harris, co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology and a Wix user, speaking of the way technology is shaping our lives and how we can improve the user experience.

Calm technology illustration by Alice Korenyouk

Applying calm technology to product design

To help us put words into action, here are just a few ideas on how we can apply calm technology principles when creating and designing new digital products:

  • Bring push notifications to a minimum and enable them to be turned off completely. Not only can this reduce distractions, but can also help the user feel empowered and in control. As Amber Case mentions in her calm technology principles, technology should “Give people what they need to solve their problem, and nothing more.” Make sure not to bombard users with notifications unless they help them reach their goal.

  • Prioritize urgency of notifications. By striving to only notify users of the most important information, you’ll be able to limit the number of interruptions. Think of a kettle, for example. It pretty much goes unnoticed when not in use - it just sits there, silently. But when you’re boiling water for your afternoon tea, the kettle will make a soft noise and a light will usually turn on. Once the water is ready, your kettle will either start whistling or make a slight clicking noise. These subtle, unobtrusive signs are all we need to use the product comfortably and effectively.

  • Tailor your product in response to each user’s behavior. Our tech shouldn't be a one-size-fits-all. Ideally, our devices should be able to make themselves a better fit for each of us, taking our very different habits and needs into account. Your products should “listen” to your customers, learn, and adapt accordingly. If, for example, a certain user has ignored all push notifications sent by the app, this could suggest that this method of communication is redundant to them and an alternative method should be found.

  • Give users the option to personalize notification settings. And we’re not just talking about push notifications. Perhaps a user only wants to receive notifications regarding certain people, or would rather schedule their notifications to appear at a specific time of day. A good example of this is LinkedIn, that gives you the option to see all the different types of notifications and turn them on or off as you see fit.

  • Find alternatives to infinite scrolling. Oh, infinite scrolling, what have you done with all the free time we used to have? Infinite scrolling is like a bottomless glass. It makes it next to impossible to tell when enough is enough. How do you know how much coffee is enough if there’s no indicator, if it just never ends? To overcome this issue, consider a few options: adding a ‘Load More’ button, separating content into pages, or enabling users to limit their browsing time.

  • Consider making certain actions slightly harder to execute. While apps these days make it wonderfully effortless to share a post, watch a video, or forward a message, this ease-of-use can also have harmful effects. It can encourage users to binge-watch content, and also plays a role in rapidly spreading viral misinformation. Consider adding an extra step in certain processes, such as asking whether the user would like to watch another video, instead of playing it automatically.

  • Minimize the number of features included in your product. As Amber Case mentions, “The right amount of technology is the minimum needed to solve the problem.” Ask yourself what exactly your customers need to successfully achieve the intended task. Is a ‘like’ or ‘share’ button necessary? How much do users need to be able to customize their profiles? And so on.

It’s true: these ideas all sound great on paper, while in reality, there will always be deadlines, more profitable solutions and other external pressures. But at the end of the day, it’s us who will benefit from calmer technology. And as technology rapidly becomes intertwined with more and more of our everyday actions, it’s up to us to strive to make it better: less obtrusive, less addictive, and much more humane.

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