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Calm Technology: How do I know when I need to know?

Designing Calm Technology

This nine-year-old article on “calm technology” seems more relevant than ever today.

A calm technology will move easily from the periphery of our attention, to the center, and back. This is fundamentally encalming, for two reasons.

First, by placing things in the periphery we are able to attune to many more things than we could if everything had to be at the center. Things in the periphery are attuned to by the large portion of our brains devoted to peripheral (sensory) processing. Thus the periphery is informing without overburdening.

Second, by recentering something formerly in the periphery we take control of it. Peripherally we may become aware that something is not quite right, as when awkward sentences leave a reader tired and discomforted without knowing why. By moving sentence construction from periphery to center we are empowered to act, either by finding better literature or accepting the source of the unease and continuing. Without centering the periphery might be a source of frantic following of fashion; with centering the periphery is a fundamental enabler of calm through increased awareness and power.

I’m convinced—as I believe Danny is—that doing this sort of thing well will become increasingly important to overstimulated, easily-distracted people (like me). There’s no way we can process all the stuff that begs our attention, so we’ll need to rely heavily on smarter, less disruptive ways to know when our attention is really needed. To do this with a minimal amount of focal change is a challenge in need of some very clever solutions.

[Via: heyblog: Thoughts on Dashboard and ambient information]

JoshD's picture

I'm a big fan of...

I'm a big fan of ambient displays. But for them to be useful, the effort needed to bring the detailed information to the foreground, and delve into the real information you need must be minimal.

Think of a (hypothetical, idealized) patient's chart on the wall of a hospital room; it has a large, easily-read graph that can be taken in at a glance, and lots of little text that appears as a grey block from a distance. Then walk up to it, and you can read all the detail you need. Think of a project planning wall; lots of big text on poster-sized sheets, and you can scan across it and focus in on any detail you like. Think of a very good map. It bears both skimming and minute inspection.

The "Ambient Orb" annoys me, because it bears the same information from the corner of your eye as it does under scrutiny. So it's about half right, and not the important half. If you want to know the details of the information indicated by that little pink glow, you have to look elsewhere, probably by navigating to it on your PC. And that's a focus change. For over-stimulated, easily distracted people like ...well, me, focus changes can act as a "hard reset," and 45 minutes later, the emergency timer goes off and I remember, I was checking the weather because I was going to walk to the library... which is now closed, oops.

I believe that ambient displays and calm technology are wonderful parts of a new generation of interface concepts, but they're not any kind of panacea by themselves, any more than a point and click GUI makes for a usable interface.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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