What UX Designers can learn from Calm Computing?

A few years ago, computers were science fiction but today most of us are carrying a computer in our palms. Looking at the development in computing, it is very likely that in future we would be surrounded by computers that could communicate with the environment, people and with each other. The buzzword for computers implanted in everyday things and talking with each other is the Internet of Things and the technical term for such an environment where we would find computer all around us is called ubiquitous computing.

Photo by Ben Kolde on Unsplash

Potential of IoT. How might we use it?

The short answer is we will use it for ease of life. Computers can be used to do mundane works or help in enhancing experiences. For example, there can be a smart plant pot that can communicate to the user when the soil has dried up or it can be a system which will automatically water the plant when the soil dries up. There can be smart cars whose headlights will turn on when you approach a tunnel or the horn sound can go down when you are located near a hospital. The possibilities are endless but one thing that remains constant is that the interactions in all the IoT examples are either computer to people, computer to computer or computer to the environment. Now the question arises what should be the nature of such communication and notification?

Nature of Interactions in IoT : Weiser’s calm computing

Mark Weiser, the father of Ubicomp introduced the idea of calm computing in which he said the interactions with IoT computers should be transient in nature, meaning computers will appear (in our attention) when needed and disappear when not. He stated that such computers should not interfere with our central attention (our focus) but should exist in peripheral attention (our awareness.) Example of peripheral attention can be our awareness of day and night sitting inside a room, we don’t actively go and look at the sun, we are just aware with ambient lighting inside the room whether it is day or night.

After a lot of development on the lines of Weiser’s vision, Yvonne Rogers published his research stating the shortcomings of calm technology for users. He basically said that if computers start making our lives effortless, we would become dumb. (well, he was not that direct though)

Rogers’ proactive computing

Vieser’s idea of embedding computers to feel very natural has two major drawbacks first it puts the privacy of data at risk and second it takes decision for the user.

Instead of augmenting the environment to reduce the need for humans to think for themselves about what to do, what to select, etc., and doing it for them, we should consider how UbiComp technologies can be designed to augment the human intellect so that people can perform ever greater feats, extending their ability to learn, make decisions, reason, create, solve complex problems and generate innovative ideas. — Yvonne Rogers

A step beyond calm computing would require a system where computers empower the user by giving enough control over decision making. The interaction needs to be more engaging and proactive (when required) than being in the background all the time.

Combining both perspectives

Taking points from both perspective, I believe the interaction with ubiquitous computers should have both calming and proactive modes. A user can be made aware of certain data in his peripheral attention and when we want to dig deeper he should be able to do it. The states of information being Invisible then visible then Overview and finally Details on Demand.

Here’s a non-IoT familiar example:

Example on notifications can be designed on calm and proactive computing principles.

The major work required would be to use Machine Learning to understand what notification should qualify into Priority 1 based on user’s interaction pattern.

Here’s another example where such calm computing UX is missing:

Facebook has no idea what I would like to see in my notification.

Friend suggestions, birthdays, group updates are not at all my priorities if Facebook had the intention of digital well being for their users they would have surely done a better job than this.

Here’s one more example of lack of calm computing approach:
(Meme makers are better designers)

Post by the Internet of Shit / Ted the stoner on Instagram.


Though the research on calm computing and thoughts on proactive computing have been published long back but it’s importance now, is more than it had ever been. Computers/Notifications are becoming addictive and interruptive as more and more psychological hacks are being used by UX designers to keep people hooked to their apps. Google’s approach to digital well being is among the first large scale implementation of calm computing thinking in digital product ecosystem, it’s a step in the right direction, but too early to comment on how well it is being adopted — certainly an approach worth looking out for every UX designer who are creating engaging and addictive experiences.

That’s it for now. Thanks for reading.
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UX Designer | Writes on design, productivity and social observations