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Calm Technology in the Era of Push Notifications

(This post is based on the video, “Calm Technology” in the Design Defined: Design Principles Explained series.)

Have you ever been in a high-pressure situation and in need of a little guidance on how to proceed?

When faced with emergencies, it’s human nature to be reactive, rather than thoughtful or critical in your thinking, and the way technology is designed can either set you up for failure or success. This is true in general, but it’s especially the case in intense environments like an operating room or the cockpit of a plane.

In aviation there’s a device known as a Precision Approach Path Indicator (PAPI) that gives pilots critical information as they’re about to land. It does so by continuously projecting combinations of red and white light from both sides of the runway.

  • Four red lights = You’re too low
  • Four white lights = You’re too high
  • Two red lights and two white lights = You’re on a perfect path to land
PAPI is one of my favorite examples of calm technology

PAPI is one of my favorite examples of Calm Technology.

The lights are always present and always providing information, but unless you’re facing the runway they’re hidden from view.

As a designer and a pilot, PAPI is one of my favorite examples of Calm Technology. It communicates the information a pilot needs at the very moment they need it, without hijacking their attention. It’s what I first thought of when I learned about Calm Technology.

Calm Technology Began in the ’90s at Xerox

Calm Technology is technology that informs but doesn’t demand our focus or attention. It encourages users to be thoughtful in their response, rather than reactive.

The concept dates back to the 1990s. Back then, a group of researchers at Xerox PARC, led by Michael Weiser, John Seely Brown, and Rich Gold, were already thinking about a future when technology would be ubiquitous.

They wondered how, in this future of “ubiquitous computing,” technology might communicate information without hijacking a person’s attention. They wanted technology to continue to augment human intelligence without detracting from it, and they predicted the need for a Calm Technology movement.

In 2015, researcher and designer, Amber Case, inspired a new rally cry in her book Calm Technology, writing:

“A person’s primary task should not be computing, but being human.”

Calm Technology in the Era of Push Notifications

While Calm Technology was a visionary concept for the Xerox researchers, it’s easy for anyone today to understand calm versus chaotic technology. Just think of two words: push notifications. The buzzing and dinging coming from our devices are the very opposite of digital tranquility. (Which is why so many of us turn them off.)

As the amount of technology around us increases, so does the need for Calm Technology.

Our cars provide a great example. They deliver more information than ever but if the mode of delivery distracts drivers from the road, the consequences can be deadly. To minimize distraction and strive for Calm Technology, cars make use of audio, voice-control, and haptic cues in addition to visual alerts.

This approach of delivering information through multiple senses is being adopted across industries and product categories. For instance, instead of simply making alarm clocks louder, there’s a whole genre of alarm clocks that mimic the sunrise using a combination of vibrations, sounds, and timed light.

Our Favorite Calm Tech Principles

Even tech companies like Apple, who benefit from our increased engagement with our devices, are finding ways to embrace Calm Technology and give users more control over how devices capture their attention. The ability to control notifications is one example. Another is Apple’s app, Screen Time, which tracks how much time you spend on your phone. Google’s Digital Wellbeing app does the same.

This trend will continue to grow as more tech companies and product designers embrace Calm Technology principles like these:

Technology should make use of the periphery.

Technology that uses the periphery moves easily from outside our attention, to the center, and back. It provides us with information without consuming our full attention, and it lets us decide when we want to consume that information.

Status lights are a good example. They let users know when a device is on, and they provide information when it’s needed — but most of the time the lights can be ignored.

Technology can communicate, but it doesn’t need to speak.

This is a reminder to consider all types of feedback — haptic, audio, and visual, included.

Not all tech needs to have a voice assistant or even audible cues. How can your device communicate without making any noise?

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

Products can minimize the amount of attention required by focusing on their core tasks. This is a good reason to follow Hick’s Law, and keep it simple and straightforward.

How Can You Embrace Calm Technology?

Can you think of products or technologies that do a good job of demanding less of our attention, and not more? If you’re a designer, are your products hijacking users’ attention, or are they allowing users to process information at a less frantic pace?

If you’re interested in learning more, these resources are a great place to start:

Download our Design Defined ebooks to learn about more product design principles.