Keep Calm And Hack On: The Philosophy Of Calm Technology

So much smart-tech is really kind of dumb. Gadgets intended to simplify our lives turn out to complicate them. It often takes too many “clicks” to accomplish simple tasks, and they end up demanding our attention. Our “better mousetraps” end up kludgy messes that are brittle instead of elegant and robust.

The answer might not be faster or newer technology, but a 30-year-old philosophy. Some great thinkers at Xerox PARC, the place where, among other things, the computer mouse was invented, developed principles they called Calm Technology.

Amber Case, Mozilla Fellow
Amber Case was on the Cool Tools podcast in early October talking about her new book entitled Calm Technology

I am a long-time fan of Cool Tools and listen to the podcast often. I really enjoy the conversations around the choices of favorite tools that each guest brings, not to mention the challenge of not immediately buying everything they have spoken about so passionately. I hear the hosts Kevin Kelly and Mark Frauenfelder struggling with the same inner battle along with me each episode. Every now and then, a guest flips the script and decides not to talk about physical tools and devices but services and even concepts. Recent guest 2021 Mozilla Fellow, Amber Case introduced me to a concept for the design of user experiences called Calm Technology, and I immediately connected with it.

What are Calm Technologies?

Let’s take a look at the principles of Calm Technologies from

Technology should require the smallest possible amount of attention

Technology should inform and create calm

Technology should make use of the periphery

Technology should amplify the best of technology and the best of humanity

Technology can communicate, but doesn’t need to speak

Technology should work even when it fails

The right amount of technology is the minimum needed to solve the problem

Technology should respect social norms

When we surround ourselves with technology, the purpose is what matters. The “stuff” shouldn’t get in the way. I once had a boss who would say, “tell me the time, not how the watch works.” Adding multiple calm technologies into your environment shouldn’t overwhelm you or create noise since each will remain in the periphery until needed.

People should never be forced to act like machines. One place where I see that happening is with chatbots. When chatbots work well, they can create a delightful interface to get information without waiting on hold for a human assistant. I suppose the best of these experiences is when the chatbot announces itself as such and is there to allow me to act like a human, using natural language to communicate with machines. Pretending (and failing) to be human is where they cross “the best of technology and the best of humanity” line; we feel somehow wronged. This goes for notifications too. We’re hard-wired to pay attention to the faces and voices of other people, so a spoken alert is nigh impossible to ignore. Could a long status message be replaced with a simple “yes” or “no” or even an indicator that is either green or red?

Now we arrive at what are likely already core tenets in how you view the role of devices in our modern world. They shouldn’t be useless upon failure, they shouldn’t be overbearing, and they should fit into what we already expect in our lives. We have covered far too many devices that rely on a remote server or proprietary consumables to operate. These can turn an otherwise calm technology into a brick. And nobody wants to be weirded out in normal interactions; a conversation with a friend would be quite different if you pulled out your phone and started recording a video, so no wonder there is debate about the AR glasses from Snap just as there was with Google Glass. Someday that may be a new norm, but we aren’t there yet.

Where to Apply This Philosophy

If studies are right that it takes 23 minutes to regain focus after being interrupted, I likely spend very little of any given day actually being focused. Worse yet, the dopamine I get from all my notification chimes and buzzes probably has me hooked on never putting an end to them. When I look for some information, it often takes an excessive number of “clicks” that make it hard to return focus to something else.

Tea kettle on the stoveI love the tea kettle example that CalmTech uses. When cold and while heating up, the kettle is in my periphery. There is no progress bar, as I don’t need to know when the water is 50% on the way to boiling; it’s either quiet or whistling and ready to make tea or coffee.

A smart home is fertile ground for calm technology. Many useful-sounding products like smart-plugs require a proprietary app to operate and aren’t calm or friendly to visitors to your home. But, an in-wall switch that can be operated manually and when the network is down but is enhanced by MQTT (or other smart-home protocols) is calm technology and gives you the best of both worlds.

That might sound great for future consumer products and services, but how does it relate to hacking?  One avenue is the opportunity to apply these principles to devise superior calm versions of existing products. One recent example featured here is the 3D printed custom remote for the elderly.

New experiences can use these principles to make inviting, compassionate, and successful interfaces. In design school, I heard about a new device called the Ambient Orb that could deliver a “news feed” in the form of a color-changing sphere. Information of your choosing, the stock market, or weather forecast could be selected to drive the color of an object that sits in your peripheral vision. These days, in an afternoon, an ESP32 and an RGB LED could reproduce that for any data stream you could imagine. Another wonderful example of calm technology is the Juuk RFID music player for kids & the elderly with an immediate and straightforward, tactile interface for accessing digital music with no logins, complex nested menus, or pop-up ads.

Don’t get me wrong; there’s still a place for robot arms, blinking LEDs, and flame-throwing creations. The original paper said that not all technology should be calm. For example, the authors stated that video games shouldn’t be calm technology, and they would be failures if they were.

There is a time for tech demanding your full attention, but it should be on your terms, not because of inadequate or lazy design.

44 thoughts on “Keep Calm And Hack On: The Philosophy Of Calm Technology

  1. This reminds me of the Weatherball in Flint, Michigan. It’s a huge sphere on top of a downtown bank that is lit up every night, and visible throughout a lot of the city. If it glows red, tomorrow will be warmer. Blue, colder. Yellow, about the same. If it’s flashing, expect precipitation.
    I had the pleasure of getting a tour of it by its operator at the time (Frank) and it was a lovely experience. I ended up building a replica for my own home office after I moved out of the city.

    1. Bismarck, ND has a similar light; TV and radio commercials would have a little rhyme to help people to interpret it.
      “The … weather beacon is green, no change foreseen.”
      “The … weather beacon is white as snow, down the temperature will go.”
      “The … weather beacon is as red as fire, temperatures are going higher,””
      “The … weather beacon is flashing green, no change, precipitation foreseen. ”

      The company that originally owned the building the light is on, is no more, and they are looking for someone new to sponsor it.

  2. I love this. My partner is really guilty of buying into all kinds of smarthome applications. We have seven million apps on our phones to control all of them and it’s a pain in the ass.

    I bought into the X10 thing way back in the day (smarthome devices over power line communications) and found it way too impractical. Light switches and such are “good enough” and searching for a perfect solution leads to a lot of hassle.

    We’ve finally reached a compromise on adding new devices to the house, our criteria are:
    * I have to be able to turn it on and off at a light switch, just like I would normally
    * Guests have to be able to use it without talking to alexa or downloading an app
    * The switch it runs off of can’t require a battery, or if it does, it certainly can’t require a screwdriver to get to the battery
    * It can’t leave switches on the wall that do nothing.

    That’s cut out a lot of our headaches around smart home things, although it does significantly reduce the devices we can buy. We’ve found great luck with lutron switches, even though they’re pricey. They work even when alexa has decided she can’t talk to any of the devices anymore.

    1. That’s a great list of criteria. I would add it has to be UL approved for liability and insurance reasons.

      That also ensures it can be left behind for the next homeowners. The last thing I want to do before selling a house is rip out all the nice things I’ve integrated into it.

      1. > “…it has to be UL approved for liability and insurance reasons.”

        No it does not. OSHA safety regulations only effect stuff used in public spaces and in the work place. It is really an insane point to make for the home DIY-types. The requirements to submit stuff to an NRTL are expensive, onerous, and are oft capricious and arbitrary.

        Back when I doing that stuff, getting ‘recognition’ for a component or module was $6k to $14k, depending on the standards that scoped the end-use application. And that price range was only if I did all the Type Tests and wrote the TRF and/or CBTR.

        With the exception of very simple stuff, ‘Classification’ is gonna start at approximately $5k. Complex stuff can be well over over $60k (I know one guy that had a $145k project bill from UL), depending on the effective standards and NEC/NFPA articles.

        End-use appliances and other stuff will require an UL ‘Certification’. Really big $$$$$. Really long time.

        To make the assessment process yet more painful, at any given time, approximately 1/2 of an NRTL’s assessment engineers that would be assigned to your submittal have little or no experience with the effective test standard(s) or your particular technology sector.

        Did a job in the early 2010s where I did all of the Type Tests, wrote the construction descriptions, wrote all of the various test reports, and wrote the risk assessment. This NRTL then charged my employer for all of the aforementioned work. We were not only charged for my work, but also for me training two young engineers. The particular NRTL shall go nameless.

      2. For non americans, what’s the UL ? to me is an html tag… ? ?
        BTW X10 is a bit obsolete as a protocol, maybe MQTT would match more today expectations

      1. Yeah but I found it to be unreliable. Both in that it won’t always do what you tell it to do, and that sometimes it’ll do something without input, like say turn on the bedroom light at night while you’re sleeping.

        My X10 experience was mostly like using an unreliable tv remote. Not calming.

      2. No need to use an obsolete unreliable protocol like X10 nowadays…
        Personally I thought it was easier to have my buttons triggering 24V contacts, which in turn will trigger MQTT messages..

      3. X10 was pretty good for the time (1970’s). But it uses AC powerline signaling, and the powerline is notoriously noisy. The situation has only gotten worse, with so many noisy appliances in today’s homes. My X10 devices wouldn’t work when the vacuum cleaner (with its unsuppressed brushed motor) was running. But they worked again when I added an RFI filter to the vacuum. As I recall, it was just a capacitor across the motor.

        AC wiring is also not designed to handle the 120 KHz carrier that X10 uses. There can be “dead spots”, or the signal may not propagate to the opposite phase in a US 120/240v system. This can be improved by a coupling capacitor between the two phases.

        Also, don’t underestimate the consequences of “cheap”. X10 devices were inexpensive, and not made all that well. This no doubt contributed to them not working very well in some situations.

        But with respect to this article: X10 *was* easy to use, didn’t require any special apps, and I have X10 devices that are still working today.

  3. my mind goes to repeatability, and its close cousin detectability. a toggle switch is nice because you can tell what state it’s in without moving it, and you can also tell if you actuated it. touchscreens are the opposite, upon touching it you generally have no intrinsic awareness that you did what you meant to…you generally have to look at it before *and* after the interaction. fingerprint scanners on phones are amazing but they aren’t reliable, it’s always “did it work this time? ok how about now?” anything with delayed feedback exacerbates this problem — am i still waiting for my tv to turn on or did i fail my interaction with the remote?

    one example where i would say i experienced (finally) a victory in calmness is bike lights…i have front and back lights, and each generation has a different kind of switch. now a lot of them have a momentary push button with half a dozen modes. and they’re all unreliable disposable garbage so i’m always “is this the one i long-press, or double-press?” and one intermediate remedy is i made a rear one with a push-on-push-off switch that mounts on my back pack so it’s the same across all my bikes but now i’m craning around to look at my own back to tell for sure that it’s on. so on one of my bikes, i finally bit the bullet and attached a combined lighting system with a single on/off switch. so just one touch, and both lights mounted where i can see them by just looking down, so i know right away if it worked (it always works).

    but now i need to make another one for my other bike… sigh

    1. I have a front wheel dynamo on my bike — no batteries to charge, it adds a little drag. Lights are wired into that.

      The rear light is always on. It charges a capacitor while riding so stay on at stops too.
      The front light is switched with a positional switch, on-or-off — but no capacitor.
      For the front lights the drag is just about noticable. Ideal would be no switch — always on works, really, but another no-switch option could be a light detector that switches lights on when there is not enough daylight.

  4. A perfect example would be a bathroom fan. There are plenty of opportunities to make it smarter. It could detect high humidity and come on automatically until humidity has returned to normal. It could be integrated with a home alarm system that detects when a window is open and could help expel stale air. It could monitor methane or sulfur levels, or motion, or listen for voice commands. However, if there is no local control, and I would have to launch an app to manually turn it on, that’s not calming.

    Devices like that should be locally managed first, and only when that’s in place give the ability to be managed via some other application or gateway.

    1. Humidity detection is a problem solved for $30 at your local big box store. I was looking for a built in timer switch for the shower, but found timer and humidity in one. It comes on automatically, and acts as a normal switch, or one press and it comes on for an adjustable amount of time. A must have.

      1. I have been living in a lot of rental houses and I hate how landlords don’t invest $30 into automated ventilation like this. Instead they prefer that humidity lingers in bathrooms and degrades walls and ceilings, leading to $1000s costs in paint and repairs every few years.

    1. Another commenter mentions function and form. To me steam punk is a style that some might enjoy, but I find a hindrance to function to the point of restricting usability. While a ratio of weight or volume of solution to completeness of task is not necessarily an acceptance metric, humans and technology exist within these constraints (along with cost and many others) and function beIng overwhelmed or obscured by form is not calming nor efficient. Frank Lloyd Wright was a design genius but many of his completed designs were impractical to maintain due to technology or cost constraints, yet form follows function is a basic principle that cannot be ignored and might be a reductive but useful mantra for calm technology or any other set of objectives to solve human problems.

  5. Brilliant article which has made me realise the one thing that has been missing from my life….

    A progress bar indicator on my kettle! MUST… GET… HACKING….. (and no a 555 won’t do it.)

    1. Remember the old liquid crystal thermometers? RV dwellers and backyard BBQ users still use them to monitor propane levels in their tanks. I’m pretty sure that if you look you could find one that goes up to 100 C that you could fasten on your kettle.

      1. That is how the charge level indicator works on Duracell (yecch!) batteries.
        Underneath the thermochromic strip is a triangular shaped resistor.
        Pressing on the ends of the strip puts the resistor across the battery terminals.
        As the resistor heats up, the narrow end, underneath the “low” indicator, heats up first,
        and if there is sufficient current available, will heat up the rest of the resistor proportional to the current flowing through it.

        Radio-Electronics once had an article explaining how it worked and how hams used the strip from a D cell as a power meter.

  6. This philosophy is simply brilliant, in the sense that it is both simple and brilliant. I desperately want – need – this to be the norm. Ultimately, perhaps we all might embrace this.

    I and a small cadre of friends have been involved in computer-driven technologies since the beginning of the home (micro) computer evo/revolution. Then form began to overwhelm function and most of the survivors drifted away as the technology began to drive us – forcing us to it’s methods, models, expectations; an imposed technical yoga consuming mind and body.

    And then came the exploitation of real people for the enrichment of corporations, the cynical farming-at-scale of humans for data. We became bitter. We disengaged. Many truly, truly great minds abandoned ship, seeking simpler and safer lives; others attacked the system directly: hacking access and interfaces, freeing data – often at great personal cost.

    Thoreau was prescient*: we have become the tools of our tools. We must choose to be the controllers of our tools, and not to be the controlled. This calm technology philosophy can help us get back there.


    * The full quote:
    “Men have become the tools of their tools. Money is not required to buy one necessity of the soul. Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”

    Money, in our era, is all but interchangeably synonymous with technology.

    1. This philosophy isn’t new to anyone that’s lived around Mennonites. They are very slow to accept a new technology. Cell phones took years to make it into their pockets, and then it’s just for business. They are some incredibly talented pneumatic and hydraulic engineers, and I’ve even seen them running an industrial CNC in their shop. They like to take their time about deciding on some new tech, to make sure that it integrates well with their lives. They don’t do anything quickly, except sending you a bill.

  7. “Pretending (and failing) to be human is where they cross “the best of technology and the best of humanity” line; we feel somehow wronged.”

    Are you referring to those (annoying) phone calls where at first you think it is a human, as it starts out like; “Hello, I’m Kay, how are you doing today?” And if I don’t give any response, it continues as if I had said something.
    That’s when I hang up…

  8. What an incredible coincidence – I was just about to write to HaD about calm technology and smart homes!

    I am working on a smart table in steampunk style – it will be able to show many kinds of information in a non-intrusive way by gentle light animations. It shows weather forecats, distance to family members, seasons and many more.

    In my other projects I also use vintage gauges that are great for indicating values such as temperature or humidity – all smart home connected but staying in the periphery of the users.

  9. “Technology should amplify the best of technology and the best of humanity”

    Thus far, technology has only amplified the worst of humanity. You need only look to Facebook and Youtube to see this is true.

  10. I got Alexa straight out of the gate, was really excited about it, but honestly it only does 3 things now, turns on and off lights, sets timers and alarms; and occasionally I ask it if famous people are still alive.

    The problem is in the intervening 10 years it hasn’t gotten better at all. I say, “Alex turn on the media room lights” and she says, “living room doesn’t support that” Does.Not.Induce.Calm.

    First, if it knows the living room doesn’t support it why doesn’t it do a fuzzy search for something similar that does?

    whatever happened to fuzzy logic?

  11. the mantra of calm technology is how you transform something from “development platform” into “fun device”,
    … assuming the device’s function is fun, of course.

    1. edit: also assuming there is no planned-obsolesence andor required companion technology, eg: the required matching outdated version of an app AND a matching outdated version of an opperating system on said device?

      it should not be a crime to buy AND USE an outdated piece of technology! but unfortunately sometimes it takes SEVERAL crimes to make use of what one may have legally purchased, and NO im NOT talking about refill or expansion, im talking about re-activating, reinstalling, and otherwise refurbish or maybe even repair.

  12. Google really needs to consider using these principles in their products. Google Classroom and their online office suite are loathsome and often WORSE than pen and paper. If my work didn’t require I use it, I wouldn’t, ever. never. it’s such a hot pile of garbage.

    1. Curious. I’ve not used Google Classroom, but use their office suite stuff, it seems mostly ok to me. Google drive is the failure for me, how can a company that started as a search engine have such a poor search of its own storage product?

  13. “I got Alexa straight out of the gate, was really excited about it, but honestly it only does 3 things now,”. Well, actually it does 5 things now – you forgot to add that it invades your privacy and mines the data you provide to provide profit for Amazon but not for you. Here’s the relevant and obligatory “xkcd” link: .

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