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TMRE: The Market Research Event

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October 8-10, 2024
Loews Royal Pacific ResortOrlando, FL

Making the Case for Designing Calm Technology

In a true life lesson in the “less is more” mode of thought, All Things Insights’ Seth Adler spoke with Amber Case, Cyborg Anthropologist, User Experience Designer and author about her TMRE keynote presentation, “The Future of Calm Technology.”

Fast Company magazine characterized Case as a “digital philosopher.” She studies the symbiotic interactions between humans and machines, and, at TMRE, Case will take center stage to share emerging strategies that can advance calm technologies in alignment with market dynamics, consumer needs and shifting social landscapes.

When people think about technology, the mind tends to turn to what’s the latest thing but not necessarily the best thing.

“It's new. It's shiny. It talks to you. It does everything,” Case says. “And then you bring it home and you're like, ‘Wow! This did not do the thing that I was told it would do on television.’”

The view on technology as it has emerged in the world always has been that it would become unobtrusive, allowing users to become more human. However, the reality is that new technology often is the opposite.

“It doesn't really have any manners,” Case says. “It's definitely not housebroken, and it beeps at you all the time and interrupts your life.”

New technology frequently demands attention, as in days long conversations with a smart screen linked to household systems and entertainment media.

“It's a little bit more of a mild dystopia,” Case notes.

Calm technology is very different, and it’s the result of a particular design philosophy that’s manifested in a good chair, comfortable running shoes or even a pencil.

“There's just as much technology in those running shoes and that really good chair and that pencil as there is in a piece of modern technology in a lot of respects,” Case says. “Those things support us, and we don't notice them.”

They aren’t invisible, she emphasized, they just don’t work against us.

With that understanding, the challenge is to develop technology design that, in effect, passes through our lives, that functions as promised with a minimum of bother.

Once, Case says, technology and the marketing that supported its popularization were developed in closer proximity. The technology and the messages created to get people’s attention evolved from the same considerations.

“So how do we design technology that has passed through in the same way that a good pair of running shoes does so that you focus on the task and not the tool. And that's calm tech,” she says.

However, glitz dazzles the eye and draws the attention, but it may not serve a purpose as well as it does generating initial thrills.

“We're still really excited about the glitter of the modern and the new, and we forget about the stuff in our everyday life, like a light switch that actually is designed really well,” Case says, “and we don't have the same standards for designing technology like we do electricity. When electricity came out, it was understood that it was super dangerous, and it could kill you if you touched it. So you needed to have electricians with really good blue collar skills to understand how to build it. And when we use electricity, we don't notice it. It's just there when we need it.”

What she calls civic engineering should be part of technology design. If the standard of a new technology is that it performs a designated function well, it can last through generations like a well-made tool.

Case makes the point, “How do we make use of what we have now and how do we make technology more resilient so that we can have it around for 10 years instead of saying, ‘Oh, this thing decayed in four months, and now it doesn't work anymore.’”

The philosophy applies in the purchase case as well as the design case. Consumers make decisions on technology on their own terms and, so, may reject or embrace it based on how it satisfies their needs and preferences.

“Calm tech is a set of principles of not only designing technology but evaluating the technology that you use in your life so that you can get back to being human. And that's it. That's what it's about,” Case says.

See the video for more on Seth Adler’s discussion with Amber Case on calm technology and how it can help people be more human.