Design

Changing the Future of Calm Technology

October 20, 2020

Smartphones were all the rage when they launched. Never before had consumers had such powerful computing power in their pockets. Fast forward a few years, and this excitement started to turn to addiction. There were so many apps and so little time. 

Recently Netflix took on the harmful underbelly of social media sites with their documentary The Social Dilemma. Many of the downsides mentioned in the film can also be expanded to mobile in general: companies are competing for attention, and their monetization models encourage them to seek it relentlessly. So what can app purveyors do to create technology that positively impacts the world and doesn’t further tech addiction? 

Enter Calm Technology

Metrics like “time spent in-app” and “x-day retention” are key for app publishers. But using the philosophy of calm technology can help designers create mobile experiences that primarily aim to help users instead of encouraging them to spend all day in-app. Calm technology embraces the belief that apps shouldn’t try to steal an increasing amount of attention. Instead, they can focus their designs on success metrics that help present information when users need it, versus bombarding them with constant notifications to drive actions. 

Calm technology isn’t new. It arose in the 1990s out of Xerox PARC. Those researchers were before their time, as large parts of society would be glued to tiny screens just 20 years later. The original idea behind the concept was to build technology that we used less. But with even a cursory understanding of the mobile metrics app companies pay attention to these days, you are well aware that this goes against the growth strategies they live by. 

Three children sitting on a couch, each enthralled with a mobile device.
Screens are quite alluring.

The current state of tech fits in perfectly with the original use case of calm technology. Liz Stinson, executive editor of Eye on Design, writes, “Not every piece of information is worthy of immediately capturing your attention, but the information should be there when you need it. More importantly, humans should decide when and how they want to interact with technology—not the other way around.”

We need to get back to human-centered design versus ad- and monetization-centered design. But these addictive technologies have seeped into our expectations of mobile and made it incredibly hard to course correct. Mobile companies have taken small steps to address the growing “techlash” (or backlash against tech), and more are likely on the way. 

Apple and Google’s Beginnings of Calm Technology

Two important ways to measure phone usage are rooted in Google and Apple’s operating systems. Google offers a Digital Wellbeing initiative, and Apple opts to share push notifications on usage with Screen Time. Both features launched in 2018 to help customers understand their usage but had mixed results. We don’t know about you, but when staying indoors is the norm, we watch our usage climb. And this can produce a strong consumer reaction to the data. Were we better off not knowing? Sometimes it certainly feels that way. But other times, it does genuinely help us take a closer look at how we spend our time on mobile in order to cultivate healthier habits. A mixed bag indeed. 

The launch of these features is one part of a resurgence of calm technology: customers want access to information and entertainment, but many could do without apps working hard to keep them active for ever-increasing amounts of time.

The Current State of Technology

There has been a profound shift in technology since the beginning of calm technology. Tech morphed into something that has consumed our lives. How we work, communicate, travel, and entertain ourselves has largely become tethered to screens. And the companies that are most successful in this new paradigm are especially good at getting us to stay in-app or on site for longer and longer periods of time (learn the science behind it here). To put it simply: there is a full blown war on for our attention, even if our mobile experiences feel much more peaceful and enjoyable than that.

Two people embracing on a beach while looking at their smartphones.
When glued to a screen, it’s easy to miss things happening around you.

Both Screen Time and Digital Wellbeing seem to be the first step in curbing tech addiction by bringing awareness to the issue. However, customers are presented with this information without judgment (which is a positive thing, for the record) or suggestions for changing habits (which actually could be helpful, if done right). 

Currently, your phone might simply tell you that you spend an hour on Instagram each day. It is up to you to balk at 365 hours spent aimlessly scrolling through images and create a plan for using your time differently. Could nudges toward healthier habits help? Sure, but tech companies have little incentive to do this. 

Are Monetization Models Holding Calm Technology Back?

In order to bring true calm technology to life, companies must approach monetization radically differently. Take a mobile game, for example, the company behind it wants customers to play as many hours as possible because then they are more likely to pay for upgrades and view more ads, prompting payouts for the business. The company’s success literally hinges upon customers spending more time in the app unless they opt for a subscription model. Even then, if customers pay for subscriptions and don’t spend much time in-app, then it’s only a matter of time before they cancel. 

Clearly, there isn’t an easy answer to the current state of affairs in technology. But The Social Dilemma was one of many factors that brought the need for change into the spotlight. Technology is a tool and must be viewed as such. But with so many tantalizing portals and platforms, it’s so easy to rack up hours in-app. 

The Capitol building in Washington DC.
Should governments get involved with the trajectory of technology?

Could Governments Help Solidify Calm Tech?

The other side of the equation is regulation. While we might want companies to have their customers’ best interest in mind when designing their apps and websites, that might not come to fruition. However, if governments around the world got involved en masse, companies would be forced to change. 

While a government choosing to ban an app or company completely might not be an effective solution, showing that governing bodies are paying attention to consumers’ impact is positive. After all, technology companies might not be incentivized to change their system of push notifications and persistent ads, but a nudge from regulatory bodies could help us all rethink what consumers should be getting from technology. Do apps and websites really need to collect endless rows of data about their customers? Definitely not, but the data market is lucrative, and no government has completely figured out how to disincentivize companies from collecting and selling this information. 

So what’s a designer to do? Designing for calm technology requires taking a step back to determine your goals, both for your customers and your company. What are you looking to help your customers accomplish, and how can you do it in a way that is mindful of their limited time? 

Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, launched the Center for Humane Technology in 2018 to further the dialogue about these questions and more. Out of this group’s work came an especially helpful document, the Design Guide, which helps product designers explore how what they are building might impact users across six human nature sensitivities. 

The truth is that there isn’t an easy way out. Tech companies have been allowed to develop for many years without regulation, and this freedom has allowed them to deliver unrivaled shareholder value. But are profits more important than the impact on end-users? We certainly don’t think so. 

The entire tech industry needs an identity refresh. Years ago, when Facebook and Candy Crush were soaring to popularity, it was such a feat for the companies and frankly an enjoyable experience for customers. But too much of a good thing turns bad at a certain point. And that’s exactly what has happened here. Can an infusion of calm technology principles help get us back to the early, innovative days of the internet that brought people together instead of dividing our attention and each other? Only time will tell. 

What are your thoughts on calm technology? Will it really take hold? Let us know by tweeting us @Protoio.

Proto.io lets anyone build mobile app prototypes that feel real. No coding or design skills required. Bring your ideas to life quickly! Sign up for a free 15-day trial of Proto.io today and get started on your next mobile app design.

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