Exercises in Calm Technology


The following exercises are a companion to the book Designing Calm Technology available from O’Reilly Books and Amazon.com


If you work with a team, it may be useful to complete these exercises in a small group. The challenges and process are largely the same, though you’ll also want to set aside some additional time to brainstorm concepts, then discuss and edit down to the most promising ones. It may also be useful to have each team member pursue a different solution, then compare your results at the end.


Exercise 1: A Calmer Alarm Clock


Part A

Imagine that you are a person who habitually presses the snooze button, leaving you too little time to get ready, or even causing you to sleep through the alarm and miss work. At best, you tend to skip breakfast, and arrive at work groggy and unfocused. Your challenge is to redesign the alarm clock in a way that avoids these outcomes, but still wakes you up in the calmest possible way.


Key Considerations

For a user who often sleeps through the first alarm, morning is probably an anxiety-prone part of the day. Rather than solving the problem by making a louder, more jarring audio alarm, consider combining audio, visual and/or haptic alerts in ways that make them more effective than they would be independently. Remember also that an alarm clock is a timed trigger, and should be treated as such.

It’s also worth spending a few minutes to search online for unusual approaches to alarm clocks. Clocky, for example, is a unique alternative: equipped with wheels and a motor, it actually runs away once the alarm sounds, forcing the user to find it before it can be silenced. There are also alarm clocks that use bright light, and smartphone apps that use vibration to wake the user. Each of these has its flaws, but the general idea—that waking up doesn’t have to mean getting yelled at—is worth considering.


Part B

Imagine that you sleep with a partner who works on a very different schedule from you. You wake up earlier, and he or she needs to rest. Redesign an alarm clock that addresses this situation, making sure you wake up on time, but your partner stays asleep. And again, do it in the calmest way possible. Here are some considerations:


  • How do you use lights, haptics or tones to deal with this challenge?
  • Is the alarm something that goes in your pillow, and makes a sound only you can hear?
  • Is it something you wear?
  • Does it take advantage of the geometry of your bedroom, with a visual alert that can only be seen from one side of the bed?

Now fill out the evaluative tool for this exercise in the same way you did for Part A. Make a sketch of this new alarm clock. What about it is different from the one before? What did you learn from the first exercise that you’d apply here?


Exercise 2: A Clock That Starts the Day


This set of exercises plays off of an idea first proposed by Mark Weiser, in which he asked what would happen if an alarm clock could change its alert style based on what the person’s day was going to be like.


Part A

At present, most alarm clocks wake people with a single, unalterable status shout. One of Weiser’s initial ideas was to create specific tones that signaled the level of activity scheduled in your upcoming day. So a person who wakes up with a busy agenda would hear, see, or feel something different from that same person on a lazy Saturday.

Your task in this exercise is to design the specific methods the alarm clock uses to signal these differences, in a way that is both clear and calm. Here are some considerations:


  • How would the alarm clock go about waking that person?
  • What status types would it use, and when?
  • Would it use light, haptics, sound, or a combination?
  • How would it treat snooze functions and other related adjustments?
  • How would it handle edge cases where the person needs to wake up but isn’t really busy?

Remember, a calm piece of technology is not always quiet. It matches its level of intrusion with the importance of the message, and takes up the minimum amount of user attention needed to do the job.


Part B

Remember the principle that a technology can communicate but doesn’t need to speak. Try a variation on the Weiser alarm clock that communicates information about the weather, without using a human’s voice.

A popular device of sci-fi TV shows and films is to wake the main character up with a talking version of an alarm clock. It goes on and on about news, weather, and messages. In reality, this kind of alarm clock might be invasive, especially if someone prefers to wake up to music or silence.

This exercise is about communicating weather information in a calmer way. Think of how you could symbolize weather with a tone or other nonverbal indicator:


  • Would it make a tone that indicates some aspect of the weather at the moment of waking, or the forecast weather (temperature, chance of rain, etc.)?
  • Could you extend or vary the tone to create the option of a longer, more detailed forecast to the user?
  • Consider the example of the weather-based light bulb in Chapter 3. How might you add a status light to the alarm clock to add detail and persistence to the weather report?
  • Most people take several minutes from waking to begin comprehending messages. How does your clock deal with that? Does it repeat the same pattern? Make a status shout then follow it with a persistent indicator? Something else?
  • What edge cases might arise? What if the link to the weather service is down? What if a weather emergency is called? Will the alarm clock revert to a different state?

Exercise 3: A Year-Long Battery


Design a product that has a year-long battery life and tells you when the battery is wearing out. One of the core issues in the so-called Internet of Things is the tendency to make visually exciting objects with bright, full-color displays that are extremely battery-intensive. Unlike a digital watch that can be counted on to work for years, these devices have to be charged weekly, daily, or in some cases, multiple times a day.

This is an exercise in minimalism. How do you design an object that uses the least amount of battery life and the lowest resolution of alert or display to get the same point across in a more elegant way than a full-resolution color display would?

Charging a device detracts from its calmness. Having to charge something interrupts usage and can lead to inconvenient or even dangerous situations, such as a phone that runs out of battery when you’re lost, causing panic. And while there are less intrusive ways to charge devices (e.g., inductive charging by pad for a toothbrush or a phone), this is often a problem that doesn’t need to be there in the first place. Replacing a full-color display with something simpler reduces its battery draw, but it also contributes to a calmer user experience. In many cases, it also reduces time to market, cuts production costs, and eliminates points of failure.


Part A

Choose a single app on your smartphone, and design a standalone device that serves the same function (e.g., calendar, camera, digital notebook, stopwatch, boarding pass, digital wallet, etc.). The device, however, must be portable, and must last approximately one year on a single battery charge, so it cannot support a color display. Here are some considerations:


  • What is the bare minimum of information that needs to be displayed in order for the device to fill its purpose?
  • How can you use simple visual alerts (LEDs, E Ink, alphanumeric displays, etc.) and/or simple audio tones to convey useful information to the user (haptics are too power-hungry)? It need not give all the detail that a smartphone app does, only what’s useful to know at a short glance — a calendar, for example, could simply show which hours of the day you are busy.
  • What would be the ideal form factor for your device? Is it wearable? Does it attach to something else? Does it go in your pocket?

Part B

Now that you’ve designed the device, determine how it communicates its current battery status. Remember, it’s a device that lasts a year on a charge, so the indicator need only ensure that the device doesn’t go dead unexpectedly, but it should do so in a way that doesn’t significantly deplete battery life. Consider different lights and tones (haptics, again, are too power-hungry for this scenario).


Exercise 4: A Calmer Kitchen


Because so many people use so many devices in the kitchen, competition and trial and error have made many kitchen devices reasonably functional and effective. Unfortunately, the kitchen is also a hectic, sometimes crowded space where multiple activities are being pursued simultaneously. So while most kitchen appliances do their jobs well, there’s still room for improvement in making them context appropriate.

In this exercise, your challenge is to design a calmer version of an existing piece of kitchen technology.

Pick a piece of technology in your kitchen whose alert style annoys you and describe the device and its function. What alert style does the kitchen appliance use? How does it catch your attention and what for? Why is it annoying to you or someone around you? If applicable, what in the environment gets in the way of the device?


Exercise 5: A Fridge for Healthier Eating


Design a refrigerator that creates a positive feedback loop that encourages healthier eating habits. Imagine, for a moment, that someone designed a refrigerator that makes an increasingly loud, annoying tone every time you open it, in order to discourage snacking. While such a solution might be effective in the short run, it has several problems as well:


  • It suffers from edge case problems—what if a diabetic friend visiting the apartment suffered a hypoglycemic episode, and had to wake up the host in order to get food? Or worse, failed to eat soon enough out of fear of disturbing them?
  • It reduces human freedom and autonomy. Instead of learning what to eat and when to eat, the fridge discourages and shames the person using it, making them despise the fridge and feel bad about it, causing them to get rid of the fridge.
  • It may actually exacerbate the problem. If you really have someone with eating disorders, you might have someone who only eats when they’re out, preventing the fridge from monitoring its use, or they’d buy premade packaged goods to snack on instead of fresh vegetables for the fridge.

What’s the underlying goal here? The goal is a refrigerator that helps people to change their behavior. Behavior change with technology works well with encouragement. It should be actionable, immediate and come with a clear call to action. What does it mean to be immediate and actionable? In this case, your task is to keep this in mind:


  • How do you redesign the refrigerator so that it results in positive behavior?
  • What alert styles would you use?
  • Would you use this fridge yourself?
  • How might you design for edge cases?


Exercise 6: Using Ambient Awareness


This exercise is about bringing relevant, real-time data to the home or office in a less intrusive way. In the Introduction, we covered the concept of Mark Weiser’s Live Wire, a mid-90s art project at Xerox PARC that involved a plastic rope hanging from the ceiling. The rope was connected to the local company network and it whirred around when something was happening on the network. Employees of PARC could gather around it and discuss what might be happening on the network. Additionally, the device made a whirring noise that could be heard from down the call. Dangling string employed ambient awareness through the visual aspect of the wire itself and the sound the wire made as network traffic ran through it.

Your task is to use aspects of Live Wire to design your own ambient awareness tool for your home or work. For instance, a stock indicator object might consist of an orb placed on the desktop that glows green when the stock is doing well and red when a stock is not.

Or maybe you’d like to make a product that sits in your living room and starts to glow when a bus is nearing your section of town. Keep in mind that a sudden status change is jarring, a pulse or soft color change can signal without disrupting. With the bus example, a light in your living room could be getting brighter and brighter as it approaches the stop, and then stays stable while the bus is there, and then slowly retreats in brightness as the bus leaves.


Consider the following questions:

  • What is a piece of information you find yourself looking up repeatedly? Is it the weather, a stock or sports score, or perhaps a notification that a child got to school safely? The thickness of ice on a pond? Amount of rain in a day? When a bus is nearing your house?
  • What type of information is this? The sort of thing where you only need to know its general value, or like the bus arrival, is there a particular value you need to know about?
  • How will your device indicate the information over time? Is the device standalone or something that lives on your computer? Is it visual, audio haptic, or wearable? The answer to this question will depend heavily upon the context in which you use it.

Exercise 7: Bringing Haptics into Play


Up until now, you’ve been able to use any kind of status alert that you like. This exercise is focused on forcing you to take advantage of one of the calmest yet least utilized status types—the haptic alert. As you might recall from Chapter 3, a haptic alert uses touch to communicate something to a user. You can utilize touch in many different ways, and this exercise is a way to explore that.

Your task is to take an interaction in your everyday environment that currently communicates using audible or visible alerts, and turn it into a haptic notification. Here are some considerations:


  • What object, dataset, or system would you use?
  • What message(s) would you be sending to the user? Why?
  • How could you disable or enable the buzzing? Would there be an interface or a set of taps?
  • Would you use single buzzes or a set of buzzes that vary in length, speed, or intensity to carry the message across? Could it be something besides a buzz (e.g., pressure, temperature, or texture)?
  • What kind of edge cases could arise from miscommunication of haptic alerts? How would your device help to ameliorate this?

When you’re done brainstorming and answering the above questions, ask yourself if you would use this device on a daily basis. Why or why not? Ask others around you whether they like the device or not and gather their opinions. It’s helpful to get more perspectives than just your own, especially for a device that uses a less frequently used status like haptics.


General Considerations During Exercises

Attention

  • How does the device catch your attention?
  • How does the device interact with the you?

Environment

  • Where is the object in the real world? What other products might interact or conflict with the product’s function or alert style? How does the product interact with the surrounding environment? This includes its physical environment (a kitchen, an office, etc.) as well as the most common actions of the user around the time when they are using it.
  • This category is important because it gives you details on whether the device itself is an issue, or whether the environment itself is an issue. Connected devices have two components: the device itself and the environment in which it is placed. Designers have to make predictions on the environment, but don’t often have control over it.
  • For instance, you might make a device that works well with a calm status tone for a kitchen, but it might not be heard over the air conditioner in the window. Some homes don’t have air conditioning. In this case, it would be important to have a variable setting for tone, or an additional a non-auditory way of displaying the information.

Information

  • What kind of information does the object provide?
  • How is the information stored?
  • What happens when information is missing?
 

Conclusions


Hopefully these exercises have helped you think about designing technology in a couple of different ways. Unless you’re lucky enough to work with your own team without any client input, you’ll need to work with others on design projects and understand their needs and perspective. The next chapter is about explaining Calm Technology in your organization. We’ll discuss how to remove roadblocks and communicate with management in order to get the best products out there with the minimum amount of issues.

These are the key takeaways from this chapter:


  • Consider what advantages status tones, ambient awareness, and haptics can bring to your product.
  • Have you found a piece of technology that bothers you but you don’t know why? Use the tools in this chapter to examine it more closely to understand how it annoys you. Use the Principles of Calm Technology from Chapter 2 and the Calm Communication Patterns from Chapter 3 to see if it could be made better.
  • Don’t limit your exploration of design to these exercises alone. Consider using the evaluation tool to work with other technologies in your everyday life.




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