Musings from the IA Summit: Calm notifications in the attention economy

May 5, 2017

There were many intriguing presentations at this year’s IA Summit in Vancouver, BC. but but one topic that stood out to me was “calm technology.”

We live in the attention economy. Every day, we are barraged by notifications from several devices, products, and services competing for our attention. Creating a signal that stands out in so much noise can be very difficult – and that can have serious consequences.

As I’ve thought about Amber Case’s keynote, “Designing Calm Technology”, over the last few weeks, I keep coming back to the question: ‘What kind of world do we want to live in?’

We want notifications from our technology to augment our lives and support our goals. But, more often, they distract and divert our attention. Not only can this be annoying, it can be dangerous. Clinicians are experiencing alert fatigue. When notifications are critical, too many of them can confuse or dilute the importance of any of them individually.

Considering our end users as we design of notifications structures for our technology products and interfaces will better support the goals of the people that use those technologies.

In her book ‘Calm Technology: Principles and Patterns for Non-Intrusive Design’, Case lays out seven principles for Calm Technology. In her talk, she gave several examples of technology that is not calm or maybe even necessary, like the Smart Fridge. Out of the seven principles, four of them are particularly appropriate to consider when thinking about designing notifications.


  1. Technology should inform and create calm
  2. Technology should make use of the periphery
  3. Technology should amplify the best of technology and the best of humanity
  4. Technology can communicate, but doesn’t need to speak
  5. Technology should work even when it fails
  6. The right amount of technology is the minimum needed to solve the problem
  7. Technology should respect social norms


Technology should inform and create calm

I have a laundry room in my basement. Like many other washers and dryers, mine makes a loud, roughly 3 second, alert when the cycle ends. This is great since I happen to live in a house that has multiple floors. If I’m on the second floor, I know when the laundry is done. When I’m in my home office, which happens to also be in the basement of my house, the notification that the laundry is done is downright jarring (especially when you’re trying to write a newsletter article for work).

Imagine what that must be like for someone living in a smaller space with the laundry facilities in close proximity?

Technology should make use of the periphery

If you’ve used a FitBit and met your step goal, you’ve felt that haptic buzz on your wrist. It lets you know that something has happened, but it doesn’t make noise and beep. It doesn’t send notifications to your phone. The haptic buzz is all you need. It doesn’t distract you from what you’re doing.

Technology can communicate, but it doesn’t need to speak

Remember back in the early days of AOL. ‘You’ve Got Mail’ was such a ubiquitous notification that it was the title of a movie. Thankfully, our email notifications have evolved. Now it’s easy to see how many message you have, typically by the number that appears next to your inbox.

Another great example of this, that Amber Case referenced in her talk, is the Roomba robot vacuum. If you have one or have seen one in action, you’ll be familiar with the simple tones. One tone for the robot getting back to its charging station successfully after a vacuuming session or the tone to let you know something is wrong and the device needs a human assist.

Technology should respect social norms

During the keynote, Amber Case shared the experience of one of her employees who had an insulin pump that beeped during their 1:1 meeting. She asked if the employee was able to control the volume of the beeps or if the beep portion of the notification could be turned off. Her employee said that it could not and that the noise had been disruptive at a recent event.

Imagine that you have a medical device implanted that beeps and you can’t turn it off or adjust the volume. Imagine what that experience would be like when you attend an event like a funeral.

Excessive notifications may be a necessary evil in the attention economy where you’re competing with a lot of other services to get in front of your customer. However, the ability to free our attention and control how we get notifications from products and services is going to be the next type of luxury. The next time you design a notification, prioritize your customer’s goals. They will thank you for it.

For more information on Calm Technology, check out Amber Case’s book on the topic, ‘Calm Technology: Principles and Patterns for Non-Intrusive Design’, and her companion Calm Technology Website which includes some of the concepts laid out in her book and links to the pioneering work done by Mark Wiser and John Seely Brown on this topic in the 90s.

Not sure if notifications from your product or system are aligned with your customer’s needs?  Contact us and let’s figure it out together.

By Rebecca Grazzini
Senior User Experience Specialist

Rebecca has worked on user experiences in a variety of industries including online education, health care, financial services, tourism, energy, and agriculture. She has spent much of her career developing complex transactional experiences under strict regulatory constraints.

View Rebecca's Bio


Let us know your name and email address and we’ll send you our newsletter.

First Name

Last Name

Email Address



Thank you!