Calm UX for a Disruptive World

“Though technology might not have a limit, we do.” - Amber Case

September 1, 2017 | Chelsea Hunt

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Moving Beyond Simplicity

In a world with more digital devices than people, our attention spans are often consumed by alluring—and sometimes addicting—online experiences. With the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT), users spend their days rapidly switching between a wide range of devices, from smartphones to Amazon’s Echo, to accomplish tasks as quickly as possible. These interactions, however, add up in terms of time and cognitive load. Smartphone use alone accounts for an average of 5 hours per day of users’ online activity, according to researchers at Google. The National Institute of Health has also uncovered a direct correlation between the overuse of smartphones and an increase in anxiety.

In recent years, the UX community has embraced the need to simplify experiences for multi-tasking users. Efforts to simplify often consist of reducing clutter and the number of steps required to accomplish a task. However, we must move beyond the call for simplicity and architect experiences that also inspire a sense of calm.

What Exactly is Calm Technology?

Amber Case, who authored the book Calm Technology, is leading the call to action to advance the standards of digital experiences to be less overwhelming and more considerate of users’ attention spans. I recently listened to Case speak at this year’s Information Architecture Summit where she evoked Calm Technology principles constructed by industry pioneers at Xerox PARC in the 1980’s. Case described the current state of technology as a “mild dystopia” of user engagement that affects all aspects of users’ lives and constrains their ability to connect with others in real life.

Though technology has evolved exponentially since the 1980’s, it’s uncanny how these calm principles can still be applied today as a framework to guide innovation.

Principles of Calm Technology

  • Technology should require the smallest possible amount of attention.
  • Technology should inform and create calm.
  • Technology should make use of the periphery.
  • Technology should amplify the best of technology and the best of humanity.
  • Technology can communicate, but doesn’t need to speak.
  • Technology should work even when it fails.
  • The right amount of technology is the minimum needed to solve the problem.
  • Technology should respect social norms.

The principles of Calm Technology especially resonate for online experiences that require a high cognitive load. These types of experiences include websites and mobile apps addressing information or account management, learning, productivity, problem solving, and wayfinding.

Case argues that calm experiences should consider the users’ attention span in the context of other products and experiences while offering positive reward through constructive emotional reinforcement. Furthermore, calm experiences should aim to restore and counterbalance the sense of digital fatigue.

When first introducing Calm Technology within your process, try focusing on a few key principles by establishing which are especially important for your brand and product. Keep in mind that some principles may not be feasible or even apply to your users’ needs.

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Applying Calm Technology to UX Design

Once you’ve selected the principles that apply to your product, consider these strategies for incorporating calm techniques into each step of the strategy and design process.

1. Discover Insights into the Problem

  • Desirability Test

This method requires users to respond to their online experience using a wide range of preselected feelings, both positive and negative. Desirability testing can be conducted at the end of usability testing or even as its own ad hoc exercise. In discovery, it’s best to test a current experience prior to prototyping, but if you’re building a new digital product, you can always use this method on competitive experiences.

  • Ethnography Study

These studies offer insights into user behavior in the context of their real environment, as opposed to a lab setting. This may be a user’s home, workplace, or anywhere else they are likely to engage. A key benefit to this method is that the user will have his/her typical distractions and devices, so you’ll gain a true understanding of interruptions, multitasking, and screen hopping.

  • Feeling Questions

It’s common in exploratory research to ask users to share examples of related websites that they like to spend time on or even experiences that feel especially “addictive.” Pivot these types of questions to uncover what experiences feel especially calming. Also, at the completion of the task, follow up with the question, “how did the experience make you feel?”

  • Syndicated Reports

Leverage reports from organizations and publications such as the Pew Research Center and Psychology Today, to understand how users’ relationship with technology is evolving and how to support their ever-changing needs.

2. Define the Area of Focus

  • Evangelize

As with any project, synthesize and present your discovery research with the cross-functional project team and key stakeholders. Share findings in the context of calm principles and sustain this framework leading into the design stage. Create a collaborative dialogue around Calm Technology.

  • Business Requirements

Develop business requirements that support calm principles. For example, to support the aforementioned principle that, “technology should work even when it fails,” require backup processes and servers, informative error pages that lead to resolution, or even additional customer support features.

3. Develop Potential Solutions

  • Positively Reward Users

Case recommends that we “not only respect humans’ limited amount of attention, but actually reward it positively through constructive emotional reinforcement.” This may include positive dialogue as a user completes a step in a conversion funnel or even elements of gamification that reward users with points or access to locked content.

  • Customer Experience (CX)

Design solutions in the context of the entire brand ecosystem for consistency and ease of use across all channels and brand engagements. Create a customer journey map to illustrate the digital experience in context of other experiences, devices, and users’ attention span.

4. Deliver Solutions That Work

  • Test, Learn, Tweak

An agile framework is in some ways inherently conducive to calm innovation through the effort of ongoing prioritization and phasing of features. This process keeps the team focused on the most crucial features for the end user and reduces the likelihood of experience rot. Ensure that in this process you iteratively design with user feedback and consider conducting similar methodology from discovery for a fair comparison.

At TBG, we find Calm Technology especially relevant when developing solutions for complex healthcare, education, and financial digital experiences. In sharing these tips, my hope is to echo Amber Case’s call to bring calm principles to the forefront of the UX community and our daily work practices.

Is there a website that you find especially calming? Share below, we’d love to hear about your experiences! And check out Amber Case’s book, Calm Technology.

About the Author

Chelsea
Chelsea Hunt

I’m a Digital Strategist & UX Architect with TBG. When I’m not strategizing, I’m on a mission to visit all of the National Parks.

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