Does Your Product Respect Users’ Time & Attention? A Calm Technology Checklist

Since my book on calm technology came out, I’m often asked if a specific product or product design is calm, created to seamlessly, unobtrusively integrate with the user’s life. My core principles were inspired by a landmark 1995 essay by Xerox PARC researchers Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown, whose ideas are needed more than ever. What’s become clear to me is we also need a way to express these concepts in practical terms that designers can actually reference in their daily work — in other words, a calm technology checklist.

Here’s a start, touching on some key questions to the ask about when designing, buying, or using products:

VIABILITY

Has the product been tested under sub-optimal conditions?

User tests are often conducted exclusively in quiet, well-lit locations, with full wifi connectivity and battery life — but not in other contexts where a device may be difficult to use, or even encourage personal discomfort or social disapproval. (Google Glass, while beautifully designed as a product, notoriously under-tested the latter consideration.)

Photo by Stew Dean

Does the device gracefully degrade?

Consider the product’s entire lifespan. What happens when batteries run out, or the server is down? How does your product handle loss of connection, slow networks, or user error? It should always offer a baseline, failsafe level of usability. (Much the same way, during power outages, an escalator reverts to being stairs). It might be cute when Twitter fails, but what happens when technology is closer to supporting life? PetNet’s connected feeder product stranded cats and dogs when its servers failed, as offline support was not yet implemented.

ATTENTION

Does your device make the best use of attention, and how?

By and large, products should communicate through clear, succinct signals which require our minimal attention.

What communication methods does the product use, and are these the best means of communicating with the user? The canonical example in this is the Roomba, which emits a short, cheerful beep when it’s completed its room-vacuuming task. Tones and lights are universal. A robot with a human voice would require translation before internationalization.

Does your device inform the user without overburdening?

Many products overbuild their interfaces to include heavy visuals, text and voice when a simple light or tone would inform without overburdening. It’s common, especially with electric appliances, to display as much information as possible at all times. But most products at most times should only convey the absolute minimum of information. (See, for instance, the elegant design of the HeatSink, pictured above.)

PRIVACY & SECURITY

For this category, I strongly recommend “The Technologist’s Responsibilities and Social Change” (1995), from Xerox PARC’s Mark Weiser, as a starting reference point.

How is sensitive data stored or handled by the device?

Public awareness of security breaches and mismanagement of their personal data continues to grow. Your user must be told up front, in clear terms, how theirs is used and protected. It’s even better if the data can be distributed and owned by individuals, then shared for a temporary period of time with a central server in order to accomplish a goal. Consider the 7 Foundational Principles of Privacy by Design.

Do you have a plain English Terms of Service policy?

An exhaustive ToS full of legalese and technical jargon intimidates users before they’ve even started using the product, attaching an undercurrent of anxiety they’ll associate with usage long after acquiescing to click Agree. Consider offering two versions of your ToS — the first of which summarizes the essential terms in clear, even humorous language, while referring to the second, full-blown version.

Can users sign up in an anonymous mode that doesn’t attach their profile to a username?

We introduced this option at my GPS-based startup, Geoloqi, to instantly soothe fears of location data abuse. From the user experience standpoint, it immediately reassures users that their natural trepidation is respected — and that they have the freedom to anonymously experiment with a product before committing their personal data to it.

You shouldn’t have to make a profile or connect your Facebook account to use a smart appliance. Each additional connection increases the surface area for attack.

As I said, this is just the start of a very long list! It will evolve and grow over time, and may even become the basis for a Calm Tech Seal of Approval, a recurring idea that could have some potential. Similar to the UL seal from Underwriter Laboratories, assuring that an electric product is safe, I believe we need a similar approach to assure consumers new products do not contribute further stressors to their already overburdened lives. We’re at the limits of our attention, and we need to get back to being more human.

Amplify the best of technology and the best of humanity. We should live side by side. As Mark Weiser said, we don’t need smarter tech, we need smarter humans. Tech in our environments can help inform us to make better decisions, but the tech itself should not be the focus of our lives.

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