Our world is made up of information that competes for our attention. What is necessary? What is not it? Technology has become increasingly intrusive, more and more often, our tools are full of tricks designed to constantly try to grab a slice of our attention. We are in relationship with our devices and we don’t want us to forget about them.
This was the starting point for Amber Case, anthropologist and author of Calm Technology: Calm Technology: Principles and Patterns for Non-Intrusive Design. She has decided to take up a theory (Calm Technology, in fact) of more than 20 years ago that scholars before her had now set aside. Why? Because it is more current than ever. She adapted the approach to relate it more specifically to today’s challenges and the way users interact with technology.
The principles of Calm Technology and Chatbot
Calm Technology is the idea that technology should be so well integrated into our lives to be virtually imperceptible.
The original principles of Calm Technology have always focused on the periphery and a general sense of familiarity. By shifting technology from the center of our attention to the periphery, people can keep an eye on important details without being overwhelmed by them.
Asking is the most basic form of research
The principles of Calm Technology go particularly well with conversational interfaces and virtual assistants, let’s see together why:
1 – Technology should require as little attention as possible. The kettles follow this principle. The right message at the right time and place follows this principle. Instead of staring at billboards at airports to figure out which gate your plane will depart from, a text message on your mobile phone would require much less attention.
2 – Technology should inform and create calm. The main task of technology should be to help us solve problems, with an approach as close to the human being as possible (and therefore simple). Instead of going through a tangled list of FAQs, wouldn’t it be easier to ask by writing a question or talking? Asking is the most basic form of information research and today we have the tools to make this process an integral part of our technological ecosystem.
3 – Technology should make use of the periphery. A Calm Technology will easily move from the periphery of our attention, towards the centre and vice versa. Asking Google Home or Alexa something, does not interrupt our other activities and allows us to quickly shift our attention from our activity to the technological tool and vice versa.
4 – Technology should aspire to bring out the best of technology and the best of humanity. Machines should not behave like human beings and people should not imitate machines. This is a crucial point for the design of most Artificial Intelligence-based experiences. We never try to disguise a computer as a human being, it never leads to anything good.
5 – Technology can communicate, but does not need to talk. The Roomba vacuum cleaner does not have its own language, but only uses simple sounds. This language based on these alerts makes it easy for anyone to understand what Roomba is saying, and eliminates the need to translate sounds into many different languages. But this type of communication, almost binary, is only suitable for simple information systems with few elements of interaction. For more complex systems, natural language becomes the easiest tool to use, never neglecting the importance of alternative communication systems such as button interactions or audiovisual notifications.
6 – The technology should work even when it doesn’t. A good example are the escalators: when they don’t work they are simple ladders. Or, when the information requested by the user cannot be delivered in the form of a conversation, the conversational interface returns to being a semantic search engine, just like http://www.google.com
7- The right amount of technology should be the minimum necessary to solve a problem. Traffic lights are a great example of how a small amount of technology fits perfectly to solve a problem like traffic control.
8 – Technology should respect social standards. Anything new that is considered outside of the best known standards can induce fear and discomfort.
A calm future
Finally, Case argues that if a good design can help someone achieve their goal with as few steps as possible, Calm Technology should help us do it with as little mental effort as possible – that’s why design should always have the user in mind.
Conversational interfaces are one of the turning keys to change all this information system: their ubiquitous (thanks to the most varied ways to communicate) but not invasive presence can be the technological revolution we were waiting for, for a calmer world.
The evolution in this area reflects many of the principles of Calm Technology: thanks to a reduced amount of user input create an increasingly rich, dynamic and practically personalized experience, similar to a real conversation. It means keeping things simple and considering user issues such as bandwidth, connectivity or accessibility. It means that we don’t need to change anything in our daily behaviours to have successful experiences. But most of all, it means putting the respect of users’ time and the construction of products they actually want to use at the center of the design.