Nicolas Bouliane

Rules for calm technology Posted on

Some time ago, I fell in love with Amber Case’s concept of calm tech: technology that requires the smallest possible amount of attention.

Amber spoke of calm tech in the context of interaction design: calm technology can inform without overburdening, communicate without interrupting, and create ambient awareness through all senses. I fell in love with those principles; they shaped how I build software.

But an important aspect is missing from Amber’s manifesto: calm requires trust. A quiet street only creates calm in a safe neighbourhood, and the tech industry definitely isn’t one of those.

Hostile technology

I suggest a different set of principles for calm tech:

  1. Require as little attention as possible
    1. Be dependable
    2. Inform without overburdening.
  2. Be honest with the user
    1. Only use data in ways the user intends.
    2. Do not deceive, mislead or lie to the user.
    3. Only make recommendations that benefit the user.
  3. Keep the user in control
    1. Get active, informed consent, and respect the user’s decision.
    2. Let the user have the final say. Ask or suggest, but never demand.
    3. Do not hold data hostage.
  4. Operate safely without supervision
    1. Automated actions should respect the user’s intent.
    2. Errors should call for the user’s attention.

1. Require as little attention as possible

Calm technology should hum along quietly in the periphery, getting hurdles out of the user’s way without calling attention to itself.

This requires technology to be dependable. Technology only creates calm once we trust it to complete its tasks without error. Calm technology is set-and-forget.

Before moving to a static site generator, I spent a lot of time tending to servers, updating software and monitoring logs. I would not leave the house for more than a day without bringing my laptop. The status of my servers hanged over my vacation like a sword of Damocles.

If technology fails, it should fail loudly.

When the need arises, calm tech should inform without overburdening. It should communicate with an urgency that befits the situation.

I had a washing machine with a loud buzzer. It nearly gave me a heart attack when it finished its cycle. Newer machines sign a pleasant tune.

Some alarm clocks use ambient light to wake you up gently. Alarm wristbands vibrate to wake you up without disturbing your sleeping partner.

Some technology deliberately distracts users for its own ends. Think of self-service kiosks that upsell.

Consider whether the tech you build needs to call the user’s attention so loudly or so frequently, if at all. Can you use the periphery to inform without disturbing?

2. Be honest with the user

Trust creates calm. Honesty builds trust. Deceptive patterns and other scummy behaviour erode it.

To build calm technology, you must build trust. Trust that you act in the user’s best interests, that you respect the user’s privacy, and trust that this will not change.

Some brands have destroyed my trust so thoroughly that I avoid them entirely. If they were people, I would not leave my drink unsupervised around them.

3. Keep the user in control

You can’t have calm without trust, and you can’t have trust without control. Calm technology is an agent of the user’s intents. It serves the user and the user alone.

And so on…

This website is my digital garden. This post is just a seedling, a work in progress that I will continue growing.