Good usability and interaction design are what separate tech we love from tech that makes us feel incompetent. As new technologies are evolving that surround and outnumber us, a new set of guidelines is needed to help make the Internet of Things as empowering and magical as we imagine. In her latest book Amber Case, cyborg anthropologist and user experience designer, re-defines the way we think about technology – it's design, it's use, and it's impact
“We often think of a design as ‘complete’ when it fulfills all of its functions, and leave the details of how it communicates to the user as an afterthought.” – Amber Case, Calm Technology
On one level, Amber Case’s Calm Technology could be considered as another great entry into usability writing, in the tradition of Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think and Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things. Case challenges us to think of the user’s limited resources in our designs, and to build tools that don’t just ‘do a thing’ but that become invisible and ubiquitous, a part of our everyday lives. The real elegance and timeliness of her book though is that its principles are explicitly centered around a world where tiny machines outnumber people – a connected, immersive, Internet of Things.
The idea of "calm technology" is interestingly not a new one; Case explains in the preface that the underpinnings of this theory come out of work done at Xerox PARC in the mid-90’s. The focus of this work, published in 1995 by Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown in “Designing Calm Technology,” was to establish guidelines for how to best design technologies for a future saturated with small devices.
The basic premise of Calm Technology is that by creating technologies that consider the limited resources available to the user – think privacy, attention, power – you as a designer and technologist can create better tools and better experiences that will ultimately make you more successful, in terms of things like retaining active users, earning money, having great adoption. Case argues that in order to be successful, the Internet of Things must be elegant, humane, and unobtrusive.
One of the most noteworthy segements of the book is on calm communication patterns. Case outlines ways that technologies typically interact in disruptive ways, and suggests ways to calm those communications while still conveying useful information to the user. She makes the case that notifications are often designed without consideration for the context of their use. There’s a great example that makes this point: a car touchscreen that was designed without field testing, and unsurprisingly, the touchscreen was unusable on the road. In this case, physical buttons and knobs are a better solution, since they allow the driver to navigate using their peripheral senses while keeping their primary attention on the road.
In a world where we are surrounded by an increasing number of devices, the need for new user interaction standards that keep the human experience at the center is clear. Case’s Calm Technology is an excellent reference for anyone designing and building technology, and an even better read for those thinking about what the future of living in the connected world bring.
As Case states: “Though we might think of technology as cold and inhuman, it’s important to remember that technology – for all its exotic idiosyncrasies – is fundamentally human. We designed it as an extension of ourselves. It is time that we smooth that relationship for the next generation.”
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