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Designing Calm Technology: Amber Case [Bold Talks]

Posted by Laura @Pistachio Fitton on 11/30/15 6:30 AM


Our world is made of information that competes for our attention. What is needed? What is not? We cannot interact with our everyday life in the same way we interact with a desktop computer. The terms calm computing and calm technology were coined in 1995 by PARC Researchers Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown in reaction to the increasing complexities that information technologies were creating. Calm technology describes a state of technological maturity where a user’s primary task is not computing, but being human. The idea behind Calm Technology is to have smarter people, not things. Technology shouldn’t require all of our attention, just some of it, and only when necessary.

How can our devices take advantage of location, proximity and haptics to help improve our lives instead of get in the way? How can designers can make apps “ambient” while respecting privacy and security? This talk will cover how to use principles of Calm Technology to design the next generation of connected devices. We’ll look at notification styles, compressing information into other senses, and designing for the least amount of cognitive overhead.


(For video transcription scroll down to the bottom of this post.)



About our speaker

Amber Case is an entrepreneur and researcher helping Fortune 500 companies design, build, and think about connected devices. She is the former co-founder and CEO of Geoloqi, a location-based software company acquired by Esri in 2012. She spoke about the future of the interface for SXSW 2012’s keynote address, and her TED talk, “We are all cyborgs now”, has been viewed over a million times. Named one of National Geographic’s Emerging Explorers, she’s been listed among Inc Magazine’s 30 under 30 and featured among Fast Company’s Most Influential Women in Technology.

Case is the author of An Illustrated Dictionary of Cyborg Anthropology and Designing Calm Technology from O’Reilly Books (Fall 2015). She is a passionate advocate of privacy and the future of data ownership, and is interested in furthering the ideas of Calm Technology, wearable computing, and the future of the interface. Her current work as Managing Director of Existence at Healthways involves predictive analysis and wellness. Amber lives and works in Portland, Oregon; you can follow her on Twitter @caseorganic and learn more at caseorganic.com.

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Video Transcription

Designing Calm Technology

by Amber Case

Hi everyone. How are you doing? Okay. Good. Great. How many of you are overwhelmed by technology? How many of you are to distracted to answer that question right now? Okay. Who've heard this over used quote? "Fifty billion devices are going to be online by 2020. Cisco and some other large companies like to take credit for this. Usually it's part of this utopian future video scenario, right? In the future everyone will have their own perfect condo and have the same San Francisco accent. Every time you ask Siri to take you somewhere it understands you completely the very first time, right? The problem is that there is a lot of video editing involved in the twenty takes that it takes for you to actually get that right with Siri. God forbid if you actually have an accent that's anything other than what Siri was trained on. One of the co-founders of Siri actually took me through all these different videos about somebody with an Irish accent that's trying to order a sandwich. Siri is just like, "I have no idea what you're saying."

I like to go through these futuristic scenarios and I like to ask, "Does this actually sound good? Is it actually going to be interesting in the future? Are we going to have things that work really well?" I like to consider a few different options. The first one is the smart watch, right? Instead of having smarter technology, I think it's important to have smarter people. Right now we're getting distracted by all these things. When the Apple Watch came out and you actually put it on it said, "Oh, let's just mirror the behavior that you have on your phone already." Instead of having all the notifications on my phone, I also had all the notifications on my watch to. The issue is that a lot of designers will design something the same way for all the devices. The world is not a desk top, right? We interact with our world in a different way than we do when we're sitting at a desk top with our full attention in front of us where we can sit for two hours and pay attention to everything, right? We're in the check out line. We don't want to get a news alert on our smart watch. We don't want to have the news alert show up on the smart watch when we're trying to scan the boarding pass as we go through the airport, right? It's getting in the way of our every day life.

You have the smart fridge. I keep talking to these large design companies that say, "We want to do a smart fridge and maybe it locks you out if you have a dietary restriction", right? This person needs to go on a diet, right? Now you can't get into the fridge unless you're taking out these items. It tells you if the bananas in your fridge are no longer ripe. I'm like, "Bananas already have a built in mechanism for telling you that they are not ripe." They turn a different color. It's awesome. That's a really great technology. That's really smart. The big problem is that maybe your friend comes over and they're diabetic and they have an attack and they need some sugar or something like that and you can't open your fridge. It's like, "I'm sorry Dave. You can't do that." You're like, "Gosh." The other problem is that maybe you get one of these smart fridges, or maybe you inherit a smart fridge when you get a new apartment. You have to learn how to use this technology. Already when you go into a new apartment, you have to figure out how does this thing work? If I press the faucet this many times will it actually turn on? If somebody stays at your house it's like, "Turn this this way then turn this way and then and then wait five seconds so that the shower comes on", right?

Already we're having problems with our analog technology. We don't need another layer on top. What I call the dystopian kitchen of the future is if all of these different companies with all their different programming languages and all their different protocols somehow get into your house at the same time, it's like, "Oh, sorry. You can't open the fridge now because it's incompatible with the burner. The burner's set to high and until the burner cools down you can't open your fridge anymore." Their will be these really annoying pop-ups and things happening all over the place.

I think that we're kind of in this era of interruptive technology which we all experience every day. I really would like to advocate for the opposite which is a term called calm technology which is technology that gets out of the way and lets you live your life. That amplifies you as a human and connects you to other people and then works, right? If we think about the most calm technology, one of the most invisible technologies is electricity. It flows everywhere. We only notice it if it doesn't work. It's flowing through this room right now, right? We just use it every day. That's infrastructure, right? It's a big issue if it goes down but it doesn't go down that much, right? Can you imagine having a Apple TV that worked that way? That would be incredible, right? Instead you turn on the Apple TV and it says, "Would you like to download a software update?" "No, I want to watch a video. How about you not have to download a software update. It's fine as is", right? Maybe every two years everybody downloads a new update on update day where you finally download all of the updates that you've been postponing on your technology because you actually need to get a task done.

Who's heard of Xerox Parc, right? This is a great research center. A lot of interesting things happened during this time. The Modern Graphic User Interface came from here. A lot of innovations and Ether Net and the Modern Web. Mark Weiser and John Seally Brown were these two interesting individuals and they created the idea of Calm Technology in the beginning. They made this world that they called Pads, Tabs, and Boards in the mid nineties. They said that we'd have all these little devices where we'd have many devices to one person. Instead of many people to one device and that would fundamentally alter our relationship with technology and that it would cause a number of issues like bandwidth concerns, attention concerns. They wrote a paper called The Coming Age Of Calm Technology. First you have a main frame computer, then you have the desk top, then you have mobile, and then you have this internet of things, right? Mark Weiser was the father of [inaudible 00:06:07] computing which we now call internet of things. This is my favorite quote from him, "The scarce resource in the twenty first century is not going to be technology. It's going to be attention." We need to really, really design our applications to understand peoples attention and understand just how much attention they take.

Let's look at some principles of Calm Technology. There's many more than this. I'm just going to go over my favorite ones. The first is that technology shouldn't be requiring all of our attention, just some of it, and only when absolutely necessary. I'll give you an example of this. A tea kettle. You set it, you forget it and under it's own design it will alert you when it's done. You can leave the room and come back and it will tell you when it's ready, right? This is a piece of calm technology cause it waits, lets you do something else in the background, and then it shouts to tell you that it's done. It's a really simple, really mundane and people use it.

Another example is that technology should be empowering your peripheral vision. Just like in the tea kettle example, you can't attune if you take your vision off of something that you're doing and attune it to something else, you can't really multitask like that and have full resolution understanding, right? Let's look at our focus right here is very high resolution but as you go off to the sides you have low resolution but you still have the ability to pay attention to something. If you design technology that gives you information towards these sides of your attention, you can still attune to five or ten things in the background without having to focus all of your attention there. The problem with a lot of designer technology right now is that it's causing you to focus right here in front of you on everything. Everything is designed as an alert and that takes all of your attention. We can do all these things with lights, sounds, and buzzes and things like that. You can just do so many more things.

We're not really taking advantage of that spectrum of notifications. Here's an example. This is a weather light. It's a hue light bulb connected to a weather report. It just shows the color of the weather that it's going to be during the day. There's a little I-Pad on the wall so you can actually look at the weather report. You wake up, go into your kitchen and it's blue so you know it's going to rain or it's sunny, it's a yellow sunny feeling, right? You know it's going to be that. It's really simple. You just feel ambivalently the weather and what it's going to be. You can get more information by looking at the wall. You're not woken up by this disembodied computer voice like in all of those futuristic ads that say, "Hey. Hello. Good morning. It's seventy five degrees out and sunny. Here's the news." People don't generally want to be woken up like that. They just grab their phone and they can read it. If you can feel something then it's more interesting. It's compressing that sense of having to pay attention to everything in front of you, over to the side or all around you so you can just notice what it is.

Another example is that technology should be amplifying the best of technology and the best of humanity. When you try to make technology that acts like a human, you end up making humans act like technology, right? If you have Siri try to act like a human, you end up having a person say something three times in a row in a robotic voice to Siri to make Siri work, right? I really like this app called sleep cycle. If you haven't used this app it's fantastic. You put it under your pillow at night and it tracks your movement. It will track your sleep cycles. You can set an alarm that's smart. It will wake you up in a proper sleep cycle. Even if you have less sleep, you'll wake up refreshed. This is something that really amplifies what you can do as in sleep and what the computer can do which is record your sleep and wake you up in a intelligent way instead of just waking you up at seven a.m. when you set the alarm. It will wake you up sometime before your alarm is set and you feel refreshed. I used it last night. I didn't get that much sleep but I feel great technically. I feel really good.

Number four. Technology can communicate but it doesn't need to speak. Again, you don't need to use a disembodied voice to get your point across, right? You can use something like captics or a sense of touch. This is my favorite example of that. I can see people straightening up right now. This is a smart posture sensor and you wear it around your back. When you're slouching it sends you a buzz, right? It's like a mini version of your mom being like, "Sit up straight. That's bad posture." What it does is it's a personal alert so it's not giving you a notification on your phone, "Hey, you need to sit up straight." You would then resign and say, "No, I'm not going to sit up straight." It just sends you a buzz. Over time you just sit up straight normally. I'm not wearing that right now, I should probably do that. It's a really fantastic device. It's a really great way to use other senses than just sight and sound in order to give somebody an alert.

I had a friend who got a insulin pump and it would beep. Other people could hear the beep. He was really embarrassed by it. I said, "Probably the insulin pump should buzz because no one can hear it, right?" If it's buzzing in a movie theater and it's really slight then it's not possible to hear. His was beeping and everybody in the movie theater could hear during a really serious movie. They're like, "Turn off your phone." He's like, "It's an insulin pump. It's attached to me twenty four hours a day. I can't change the alert style." When you design technology for people, you have to really understand the situations they're going to use it in.

Finally. The right amount of tech is the minimum amount to solve the problem and nothing more. Like that great design quote, "Good design is where you take something away til theirs nothing left to take away." Here's an example of this. The greatest technology is boring, right? Like this toilet occupied sign on a plane, right? You can be red, green, color blind and still understand what it has to say. You don't have to translate it into fifty different languages. You can not have your glasses on and have horrible vision and understand ambivalently whether the bathroom is occupied or not. It's a friendly, universal symbol. In conclusion, a persons primary task in calm technology should be being human, not computing all of the time. That a good design allows people to accomplish their goals in the least amount of moves. Calm technology allows you to do the same thing with the least amount of your attention. That's going to be the scarcest resource in our new world and it already is. The more we pay attention to peoples attention, the more we'll make products that people love. Go into peoples lives that people use for a really long time. The more we'll make sustainable businesses that don't just go out of trend or out of style in six months and fall apart.

I'm going to publish this book soon from O'Reilly on this. It goes through all these different examples. Should be interesting to read even though it's a technical book. If you want to order it you can, if you don't, then don't. Thank you so much. It's great to be here. I hope we make the world a better place.


Topics: Speaker Videos, Bold Talks


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