The Promise of Calm

September 3, 2015 in Connected World
Jonathan Brown
Senior Design Engineer

“Stanwix. Walk sign is on to cross Stanwix.”

Every morning on my way to work, I hear an anchorwoman with an alto voice say this six times as I cross Stanwix Street at Boulevard of the Allies in downtown Pittsburgh. On days when I cross at a different intersection, I hear a newscaster’s tenor give a similar direction four times. I don’t remember ever hearing such a vocal crosswalk announcement, and it irritates me. The speakers pollute the already full airspace around my ears with a message I could discern at will from the lighted sign across the street.

Technology at the intersection of Stanwix and silence

My anger does not stem from a latent ableism. I support the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the steps the City of Pittsburgh has taken to assist those who are visually impaired at intersections. I think cities should spend any amount of public money necessary to ensure that their busses do not hit their citizens. No, my anger comes from the invasive nature of the medium. Not all visually impaired people prefer this mechanism and some people who can hear are jarred by the sounds.

At most crosswalks, when I want to know if I am safe to cross, my eyes dart to the color of the sign across the street. Otherwise, my time is spent observing my surroundings and people-watching. But at Stanwix, once the traffic flows in my direction, the anchorwoman’s grating voice pushes me into the street. Aural cues are sometimes hard to understand, and if they are not used consistently, intersections become even more confusing.

Nobel laureate Herb Simon identified the root of my anger nearly 45 years ago when he defined what has come to be known as the Attention Economy:

“… a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it” (Simon 1971, pp. 6–7).

Simon says that if I listen to the crosswalk voice, then I must take my attention away from something else, like the task of crossing the street without getting killed (in Pittsburgh, having the right-of-way is no guarantee).

Image source: textually.org

I also take issue with the syntactic problems of the message itself. Shouldn’t the voice say “It is safe to cross Stanwix” rather than stating that the sign is “on”? How would a visually impaired person know what it means for the sign to be on?

The Cost of Consumption

The talking crosswalks on Stanwix street foretell of a very noisy future on Trillions mountain. Our devices bombard us, ever increasingly, with information that demands our attention. Simon’s Attention Economy posits that attention is a scarce resource, and we must spend it wisely as we do with our time, talent and treasure. As information becomes plentiful, its value is decreasing and the value of our attention is increasing.

This fundamental shift transfers the cost of consuming information from the producer to the consumer. For example, when you’re reading The New York Times, traditional economics account for the cost of the journalist, printing the newspaper and the delivery to your home. Attention Economics account for the “cost” of your time spent reading on a Sunday morning. According to Attention Economics, when technology demands your attention, it is stealing from you.

The Case for Calm

In the 90s, scientists at Xerox PARC called for calm. Calm Technology helps us focus on the things that are really important. Mark Weiser, the father of ubiquitous computing, and John Seely Brown wrote The Coming Age of Calm Technology in 1996, which states “Calmness is a fundamental challenge for all technological design of the next fifty years.”

Calm technologies make use of the periphery. The periphery is what we are attuned to, without attending to explicitly. Your peripheral vision allows you to see things without requiring your full attention, and directs your attention when it detects things that are important. For example, when you see movement in your peripheral vision, your attention is drawn to that motion. When you look straight at the moving object, you’re able to determine if it is an orange and black tiger running toward you. Calm Technology attempts to use the periphery of your attention in the same manner for all your senses.

Made you look. Image source: Flickr

At the corner of Stanwix, the crosswalk sign is in the periphery, but the voice demands attention. A better alternative would be to implement an audio signal that exists in the periphery like the visual sign. A “calm” crosswalk would issue different tones according to the state of the sign. Some existing crosswalks do this successfully by using a slow tick for “Don’t Walk” and a rapid tick for “Walk.” These signals exist in the periphery for pedestrians until they are needed.

Pedestrians who focus attention on the ticks broadcast from the closest pushbutton and the pushbutton across the street are able to orient themselves between the two corners and cross safely. For those pedestrians, like me, who are able to orient ourselves using visual cues, the audio becomes invisible.

The Future of Calm

As it is with the crosswalk, so it is with every machine users encounter; users are bombarded by more and more notifications. For example, a smartphone sends the same notification when:

  • your Mom sends you a text that your Dad is going to the hospital
  • the video game that you played once has a free gift available
  • you matched on Tinder (congratulations!)

Now imagine the coming world of Trillions, where you also receive notifications from:

  • the refrigerator, because the water filter needs to be changed
  • the apartment door, because your roommate just got home from work
  • the DVR, because AMC just released another Walking Dead spinoff
  • the remote control, because the batteries are running low

O’Reilly® promises a book on the topic of Calm Technology in 2016, which should bring these concepts to the forefront of UX Design. We designers must reflect on the urgency of our notifications and move to the periphery all but the most relevant messages. Otherwise, the top of Trillions mountain is going to be very noisy, indeed.

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