Updated: Feb 13
Last year, Amber Case published a basis for a Calm Technology Checklist that not only "designers can actually reference in their daily work," but also consumers can use when purchasing services and products. In this text, I explore the main concepts of calm technology and present a scoring method for Amber Case's CTC.
Calm Technology can be understood as a set of design principles that can be employed for products. They were created so the interaction between the user and the technology could make the best use of the user's periphery rather than consistently at the center of attention. The term "Calm Technology" was first published in the article "Designing Calm Technology," written by Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown in 1995.
Before explaining the scoring method for the CTC, I will briefly describe the core principles of Calm Technology using an alarm clock as an example.
I. Technology should require the smallest possible amount of attention
Imagine an alarm clock that would require you every single day to set the time you want to wake up the next morning. After one week, you probably would want to ditch it. Never forget that your attention is indivisible and that your time is unrecoverable.
II. Technology should inform and create calm
An excellent example would be an alarm clock without any display to indicate if the alarm is set to on or off. The device would not be informing you if the desired outcome - of the buzzer activating, resulting in you waking up - will be accomplished or not creating a cognitively demanding situation for the user that would probably translate into a higher stress level.
III. Technology should make use of the periphery
But you don't really need a screen message to inform if the alarm is on or off. The same information can be conveyed by - for example - using a small luminescence light under the device that could change its color to blue when the buzzer is set to on and could turn to red when the alarm is set to off.
IV. Technology should amplify the best of technology and the best of humanity
Philips has an alarm clock that uses a light bulb to simulate sunrise, gently waking you up in the morning. This is a very nice feature because it mimics the natural characteristics of being woke up by the sun to make human beings wake up better.
V. Technology can communicate but does not need to speak.
Most people would consider waking up to a talking alarm to be too creepy to consider as an option. Also, a device would need to offer many languages. That is why designers need to be mindful when deciding when to builtin speech into devices in opposition to visual, audio (sound), and tactile senses.
VI. Technology should work even if it fails.
This principle can seem hard to understand at first. It is easier to get the idea if you keep in mind that technology, being created by human creativity, is far from perfect. Consequently, it is a smart idea to embed batteries into the design of an alarm clock just in case there is a power outage, for example. All exceptional products should have resilience embedded.
VII. The right amount of technology is the minimum needed to solve the problem.
Do you really need an alarm clock that accesses the Internet before triggering the buzzer to make sure what time is it or provides you with dozens of customization options? Would that add value to the product or just unnecessary complexity?
VIII. Technology should respect social norms.
A sensible alarm buzzer needs to wake you up, not the entire neighborhood. Of course, you can choose to buy dozens of loud bells out there, but there is simply no point in being disrespectful to others and unkind to yourself.
Now that you got the basic idea of what Calm Technology stands up for, we can go on to explore how to use the CTC to enhance our power of decision regarding which tech solution is best for us.
Looking inside the CTC, we can identify four main sections: Resilience & Simplicity, Attention, Privacy & Security, and Respect to Social Norms.
For each section, you are going to answer some questions and score your answers.
Now, it is time to focus on each section.
Resilience & Simplicity
Forget about what ads are promoting and go after what users and specialists are saying. Take your time to do your homework. Keep in mind that the real world is nothing like Disneyland and therefore Internet is not all times accessible, power outages do happen, the service or product itself is subject to fail, and your cat might not have the same taste as you. The goal here is to analyze if the product is resilient. In other words, if it is still worth buying or signing up for based on the way it behaves in the wild.
After you are happy with your investigation, see where it fits in the classification below and then apply the corresponding punctuation.
0 (Low Resiliency) - The product does meet its primary purpose, but there is no resilience added to the design. For example, an alarm clock capable of waking you up, as long as it is connected to an energized power outlet.
5 (High Resiliency) - The product meets its primary purpose and offers builtin resilience to its design. For example, we could add a battery power backup to the above clock to avoid the product from not functioning in case of a power outage.
It's also essential that the product uses the minimum amount of technology to reach its goal. Fewer options translate into a more precise interface and fewer variables that could lead to failure.
Does the product use the minimum amount of technology needed to solve the problem? Yes (5) or No (0)
We all have to realize two inevitable aspects of our life as human beings: First, time is an unrecoverable resource. Second, our attention is indivisible and therefore - and against common sense - it is impossible to achieve multitasking and deep work simultaneously. With these two points in mind, be prepared to evaluate how a product uses your attention and thus your time.
You should verify if the service or product:
- Allows you to control notifications.
- Can perform tasks without demanding your attention.
- Informs without overwhelming.
- Has a fast and easy to use interface.
- Create ambient awareness through different senses.
For each of the above, answer with Yes (2.5) or No (0). Add all four results to get the final score for this section.
Privacy & Security
To score this section, think about answering the following questions with Yes (5) or No (0):
"Is it possible to still use the product without having to submit personal data to it?"
Add the resulting scores to get the rating for this section.
Respect to Social Norms
Human beings are social creatures, and we live under complex social norms that vary among many different cultures. Therefore, a company must design a product considering these social norms.
Does the product design take into consideration respect to social norms? Yes (10) or No (0).
How to Achieve The Final Score
When you finish evaluating all four sections, add all your results. The product with a higher score will have the tendency to be the best choice in terms of calm technology adherence.
I really hope this simple method inspires people to reflect when making decisions regarding purchasing technology products and signing up for online products.