How Calm Technology Can Help Us Be More Human by Amber Case

BY JAMES GADSBY PEET ON NOVEMBER 3, 2017

As demonstrated with her TED talk we are all cyborgs now Amber Case has a pretty unique perspective on how technology impacts people’s’ lives.

With clients, Amber regularly has to reign in their ideas – such as the smart fridge, which she sees leading us towards the Dystopian kitchen of the Future.

Petnet.io is another example she conjures up, which is supposed to feed cats and dogs remotely. Unfortunately they don’t have offline support, so when their web servers went down, cats and dogs weren’t able to be fed! Amber is certainly not convinced that being forced to become a system administrator to live in your own home is progress…

Instead, we should be aiming for calm technology.

Calm Technology by Amber Case at #mtpcon

The concept of calm technology came out of Xerox PARC in the mid 90s as a reaction to the increasingly hectic world that they were designing and in which we live. It’s key principles are:

Technology shouldn’t require all of our attention. Kettles follow this principle, text messages do not.

Technology should empower the periphery. You don’t always listen to the engine of your car, but if there is a problem with it, you’ll notice it very quickly. This is a good use of peripheral awareness. This kind of ambient awareness will often enable a user to identify for themselves when they need to shift their awareness to a higher resolution display.

Technology should inform and encalm. Products that follow this principle often use ambient awareness. This can be haptics, light status or positive tones to indicate a point it is trying to make.

Technology should amplify the best of technology and the best of humanity.

Amber Case at #mtpcon

By making the invisible visible, we can remove the perceived need for data scientists at every stage of our lives. Within manufacturing, there is a successful movement towards using augmented reality to display the data that is being collected from a variety of simple sensors. This can give a manager of the factory an instant view on how each of his machines are working and where the potential risks might be.

Machines shouldn’t act like humans
and humans shouldn’t act like machines.

In addition to Xerox PARC’s principles, Amber has created her own framework that we should be trying to design our products to fit within, if we are going to make them truly useful to people.

It is also worth considering that the more automation we bring in, the more important front-line customer service becomes. There are naturally going to be mistakes within these systems and you need to be able to solve them quicker and quicker. Product Managers should strive to see the whole system that they are operating within, and make sure that it meets the needs of their users. Organisations that get this right will gain ground on those that only look at things in isolation.

Calm Technology by Amber Case at #mtpcon 2017

Amber’s Framework for better digital tools:

Technology can communicate but it doesn’t need to speak. The Roomba Robotic vacuum cleaner simply communicates with its users by a series of beeps, which can be understood in any language.

Technology has to consider social norms. If something is ahead of whatever the ‘normal’ is, as defined by society, it is usually seen as a fear-inducing technology. This was the case with lifts, trains and Google Glasses. Eventually though, if they meet a need, they get accepted into the social norm. At this point, something else normally takes its place as the ‘scary technology’ on the horizon.

The right amount of technology is the minimum amount to solve the problem. Traffic lights operate as punctuation for the streets – they are a great example of a small amount of technology that fits the problem perfectly.

Technology should make the use of the near and the far. Distributed computing usually helps us to have a better experience, if we’re storing essential information nearer to where we are. This is a cyclical journey, with various states of computing first being remote and then coming back to be performed locally. Be aware of what each is best for at the moment in time when you’re building a tool.

Technology should work even when it fails. Escalators are perhaps the best example of graceful degradation in the world – as when they don’t work they simply become stairs.

Be Human

A person’s primary task shouldn’t be computing – it should be being a human. Technology has to work alongside us rather than take over our lives. As such, Amber’s final piece of advice to us all way to try putting your phone on airplane mode by default – and check in when you need to rather than being interrupted all the time. You’ll be amazed by the difference.

James Gadsby Peet

About JAMES GADSBY PEET

I've been in the digital industry for over 10 years and have worked across small and large charities, as well as my own freelance projects. I am now Director of Digital at the sector leading creative agency William Joseph. Having been at Cancer Research UK for the last four years, I have been able to work on high volume, high profile campaigns such as Race for Life, Dryathlon and the much-quoted #nomakeupselfie. In that time I helped drive forward the charity’s digital product and marketing capabilities to be some of the most respected and successful in the sector. I'm always excited to work with other organisations, share expertise and swap cat gifs. Give me a shout!

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