The rise of smartphones has had an indelible impact on work culture—nobody is ever actually out of reach. Employees check their inbox or collaboration platforms like Slack, even when they are nominally off duty. Incoming message notifications are distracting, demanding the attention of the user. The context switching which occurs as a result of these interruptions reduces productivity, as significant amounts of time are lost when users attempt to regain focus after addressing the source of the interruption.
SEE: Employee Time Off Policy (Tech Pro Research)
While this is not exactly a new problem—pagers and feature phones were just as capable of interruption—its effects can be felt more acutely as smartphones have become more integrated in everyday life. This, combined with the advent of ubiquitous computing, creates the potential for people to become more easily overwhelmed by excessive digital stimulation. The principles of "calm technology," as devised by Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown at Xerox PARC in 1995, are intended to address how people interact with technology and address this stimulation.
What is calm technology?
Devices designed around calm technology are intended to exist primarily in the user's periphery. When the user is ready to interact with it, it should be able to easily become the center of attention, and subsequently transition back to the periphery. Also, calm technology should increase the use of the user's periphery, it should not overburden users with input.
According to Weiser and Brown, the goal is "...to put us at home, in a familiar place. When our periphery is functioning well we are tuned into what is happening around us, and so also to what is going to happen, and what has just happened. We are connected effortlessly to a myriad of familiar details. This connection to the world around we called 'locatedness', and it is the fundamental gift that the periphery gives us."
In a more concrete way, technology is calm when it operates without diverting the user from a given environment or task. This can be done by giving the user what they need to achieve a task without overwhelming them with unnecessary options or extraneous information. It should also allow users to multi-task, as calm technology can operate in the periphery without requiring constant attention of the user to perform a function.
How can calm technology help me be more productive?
Naturally, introducing calm aspects in devices happens in the design phase. Users generally cannot modify a device to make it more calming.
In Chromebooks, and newer Android phones like the Pixel, Pixel 2, and Xiaomi Mi A1, updates are delivered using an A/B partition system. Instead of prompting users to update their devices, the updates are installed to the non-active partition when the device is operating. This makes the user-facing experience seamless: Updates are activated when the device is rebooted, rather than delaying the user by installing updates during the next boot. As users do not have to contend with update status screens, which interrupt work from being done, productivity is increased by eliminating time spent maintaining the device.
Smart assistant terminals such as Google Home and Amazon Echo are perfect examples of calm technology. First, these devices process input and provide output in natural human language—there is no scripting or macro building to be done by the user in order to get the most value from the product. These devices operate on demand, they do not interrupt users nor demand immediate attention. For Google Home, notifications are provided with a single dot lit up, allowing the user to ask "What's up?" as time allows.
How can I adopt these principles when using technology?
Think about what can be done naturally and comfortably without technology. Consider this the default state. From there, consider how to emulate this when technology is introduced. The ubiquitous presence of webcams reduces the difficulty of video calls to a triviality. Using video calls rather than phone calls, email, or text messages for long conversations allows each party to pick up on visual cues in communication, eliminating guesswork in discussion.
SEE: 6 tips for managing your mental bandwidth (TechRepublic)
What's your view?
How do you manage work/life balance? Do you seek out calm technologies to reduce stress and maintenance time? Share your strategies in the comments.
- Personal digital assistants: The current lineup (TechRepublic)
- Robotics in business: Everything humans need to know (ZDNet)
- 9 stress reduction tips for project managers and teams (TechRepublic)
- Australian government funding 52 smart cities projects with AU$28.5m (ZDNet)
- Amazon Alexa: The smart person's guide (TechRepublic)
- As workplace communications evolve, are most meetings a waste of time? (ZDNet)
James Sanders is a Tokyo-based programmer and technology journalist. Since 2013, he has been a regular contributor to TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research.