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Which is the more impressive piece of technology – an escalator or an elevator?

An elevator gets you further, you might say, so that’s the winner. But technologist and writer Amber Case takes a different view. When an elevator stops working, it becomes an uncomfortable metal cell. When an escalator stops working, it becomes… a flight of stairs. Still functional, even when it’s not functioning.

These kind of ideas are at the heart of Case’s info-packed and quietly passionate book Calm Technology: Principles And Patterns For Non-Intrusive Design. It’s a thought-provoking read for anyone in the business of innovation, technological or otherwise.

Case is writing for a world in which connected devices far outnumber people, by a factor of five to one or more. Such a world – which we’re almost living in now – makes colossal demands on people’s attention. Without better design, we find ourselves drowning in a sea of alerts, beeps, buzzes, pings and nowadays voice interaction too.

In Case’s work – building on the ideas of 90s MIT researchers who coined the “calm technology” term, years ahead of their time – the best thing technology can do is get out of our way. Alert us only when it needs to; occupy the periphery of our attention; work even when it stops working. Overall, respect our humanity. The Internet is full of writers and film-makers lamenting our dependence on our devices. Case coolly imagines a better world and creates guidelines for how to build it.

What does this have to do with innovation? One of Case’s big ideas is that technology design shouldn’t just involve reaching your goal with the fewest steps, it should also involve the lowest mental cost. Distraction – demanding attention for something that doesn't strictly need it - creates agitation and effort, and ultimately reduces happiness.

This emphasis on low mental cost chimes very closely with our philosophy at System1. For a start, there’s Fluent Innovation, where we believe the most important element of a new idea isn’t what makes it new, but what makes it familiar – quick, intuitive and easy to grasp.

But there’s also Moving Power and Stopping Power, the concepts behind our philosophy of Shopper Marketing. The world Case describes is a world where technology creates moving power – lets people go with the flow of an experience, rather than constantly trying to grab their attention (stopping power).

Of course there’s a difference. When a badly planned display in a shop makes you work harder, it’s tiresome and ultimately counter-productive. When bad tech design raids your attention – like a phone pinging when you’re driving, enticing you to text or look away from the road – it can be fatal.

Case’s book is full of useful exercises in trying to incorporate calm principles into your design. My only concern is that the future she envisages – full of genuinely useful devices which fit unobtrusively into our lives – may not happen.

The big tech bets of the moment, after all, involve voice interaction – which demands direct attention – and virtual reality, which monopolises it. We’re fans of both, in their place. But it’s a sign that calm may not be high on tech’s priority list. This book deserves to change some minds on that.

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