When designing a user experience, we usually assume we are engaging a user’s center of attention, albeit short. We design an experience that will be a user’s primary focus or foreground activity for the duration of their engagement with a device, whether it be on a desktop, laptop, phone or tablet. In an attempt to provide added utility, we design reminders, such a notifications and badges that can inform users of unread messages and overdue updates.
Personally speaking as a user, I already have notification overload. Although the idea is sound, notifications and badges may be too attention grabbing considering the number of them. We should ask where are we going from here? If we are to live with many computer-enabled, special purpose devices specifically if the Internet of Things (IoT) grows as predicted, then many devices talking at us at once simply cannot occupy our foreground attention. Living with a cacophony of smart gadgets is neither an appealing or efficient eventuality.
The path from desktop computers to the Internet of Things (IoT) can be traced back to the research of Mark Weiser at Xerox Park in the 1990s. Weiser theorized that computing power would become so small and cheap that it could be embedded in a countless number of everyday artifacts. Computing would move from the single, multipurpose desktop device to many, special purpose devices. He coined the term “ubiquitous computing” to describe his vision of the future where our lives would be full of smart appliances.
Weiser also realized that living with many intelligent, helper devices providing lots of valuable data and reminders, could quickly become overwhelming and annoying. He suggested what he called “calm” technology, or systems that don’t compete for our focused attention. Instead, they would provide service only when a user wanted it or paid attention to them. These ubiquitous appliances could blend into our environment and occupy only our peripheral perception until we called on them.
Weiser added, “Calm technology engages both the center and the periphery of our attention, and in fact moves back and forth between the two.” (₁)
The idea of a device display that we mostly notice peripherally, also referred to as “ambient” or “glanceable,” is evolving. Note that this is an innovation for computers, because such “displays” already exist in the natural and manmade world. Glancing at the sky to check the tendency of the weather has likely existed since the dawn of man. (Note that weather apps have evolved from providing pure, dense text data, to indicator images and a small amount of text data.) For generations, clocks have calmly ticked away displaying time at a glance, only requiring our focused attention when we need to think hard about managing our time.
Over the past two decades, a number of experimental and productized, ambient interfaces have been developed that combined data with a physical display of various kinds. Natalie Jeremijenko then an artist in residence at Xerox Park, created Live Wire, using a dangling 8-foot plastic string attached to a motor powered by data transmission on the local Ethernet. The string would twitch whenever a packet of information was sent across the network. A small amount of data resulted in minor twitches; a lot of data resulted in violent twitching. Another version used LED cables that lit up relative to the amount of network traffic. There were no actual numbers shown so one would need to check a desktop computer for that data. The representation gave you a relative sense of the amount of data. It was a display that could stay in your peripheral perception. If you were having issues with slow downloads, you could quickly see if the network was currently very busy. (₂)
Cognitive psychology supports the idea that ambient displays can have value in managing users’ attention. Daniel Kahneman, in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, defines two systems of thinking that conform to the idea of two kinds of attention, peripheral and central.
System 1 represents fast thinking. It includes subconscious, immediate, involuntary and emotional thoughts. It responds to inputs such as smells, sounds, colors and facial expression instantaneously. It is so quick that it doesn’t even feel like you are taking in information. According to Kahneman, the brain can register this kind of input in about 11 milliseconds. (₃)
If System 1 registers something worthy of more attention, then “slow” thinking, or System 2, is activated. System 2 thinking is deliberate, voluntary, focused and logical. You can see how an ambient display can take advantage of the brains ability to monitor information without using cognitive energy.
What does this mean for designers creating experiences for the IoTs? Here are three takeaways to consider:
--We usually assume that we are designing for the center of attention, but we should start asking when designing for peripheral attention is it the right thing for a particular device.
--Take advantage of existing behavior that a user may already possess for a particular environment or activity rather than designing a device that forces a user to develop a new habit. For instance, most people look in a bathroom mirror in the morning before or while getting dressed, so a bathroom mirror that displays the day’s weather at a glance is a natural use of peripheral attention.
-- Consider how to show valuable, easy to use data to users that is appropriate to them and to the context of use. IoT devices are likely to have access to large amounts of data, but less is more. Back to the mirror, the user is probably happy to see at most, current temperature, highs and lows and any indication of conditions, raining or partly cloudy. Weather apps have already learned this lesson.
I hope you’ve paid your full attention with your system 2 thinking, to this post!
1. Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown, The Coming Age of Calm Technology, web journal accessed March 2, 2015,
2. Live Wire, Wikipedia, accessed March 2, 2015, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natalie_Jeremijenko
3. Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow, (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books, 2011), 21.