How to avoid distractive design and create successful products?

We are living in the era of distractive design and technology. We have many annoying electronic devices competing for our constant attention. As Mark Weiser said: “The scarcest resource in the 21st Century will not be technology, it will be attention.” So how to compete on the digital market for this very scarce resource? This is what Calm Technology can help you with.

An era of distractive technology

Every designer, product owner, and developer dreams about users who give their undivided attention to their products. They expect them to learn how to use them, to download every new update and know how to connect them to other devices. They just don’t realize that, in general, everybody on the digital market has the same desire. No wonder users end up swamped by information and feel distracted from reality. According to a stunning prediction by Cisco, the world will have 50 billion connected devices by 2020. You might ask: Is it good for us? We already have problems with our current devices, do we really need more?

Why won’t distractive design survive?

The concept of Calm Technology tries to answer this question: How can you design technology that becomes an essential part of users’ lives and not a distraction? It provides methods for smoothly capturing users’ attention but only when it’s necessary. Calm products remain in the background most of the time.

But why is it important to respect users’ attention?

The secret of successful products is that they make users happy by allowing them to accomplish their goals with the least amount of mental cost. Users love products that are useful for them and add extra value to their lives. They need products that make them feel comfortable and not distracted or stressed. With Calm Technology guidelines you can avoid distractive design and create successful products by respecting users’ attention. Products that work well, launch well, are easy to use and remain unobtrusive. This approach not only helps you to be successful but to maintain a more sustainable business model as well. How? People get used to and stay loyal to products they love. And it’s hard for them to change old patterns. With loveable products, you can have loyal users who contribute to a more stable business.

So here are a few principles to design a product that respects users’ attention:

How to pay attention to attention?

1. Don’t require all of the user’s attention, only some of it and only when it’s necessary

You don’t need to communicate with push notifications all the time. Be like a tea kettle! Only warn users when something has changed or when they need to do something. Otherwise stay quietly in the background. You can’t expect users to interact with reality the same way they interact with a desktop: like sitting in front of it and giving it their full attention. In the real world, you don’t have that luxury. As Amber Case said: The world it not a desktop!

This is what we kept in mind at UXstudio in our project about how to build trust in self-driving cars. Autonomous cars will hit the roads in a few years, but designers have to deal with users’ lack of trust. So we designed a display UI where the car always shows what it is doing in that exact moment. But only warns users about obstacles that need special attention.

2. Empower the periphery

Usually, our attention has a focus, but we can also perceive our environment with our peripheral senses. The problem with most digital products is that they want us to focus only on one thing (read that notification, push that button etc.). This way they’re blocking out the periphery of our attention. Why is this a problem? Because they simply don’t make use of our other senses. They try to compress the same amount of information in only one sense rather than making use of all the others. So it requires extra cognitive effort to switch focus between different tasks. This is why users feel distracted and being “locked out from the real world” sometimes.

How to avoid distractive design by empowering the periphery.
Example 1: Hue lightbulb connected to a weather light. The color of the light indicates the weather outside. Users instantly get the information from their peripheral senses without push notifications.

When designing a product, it’s a good idea to imagine your users in the context of their “natural environment”. What are they doing? What else do they have to focus on? Let them do other important things! Become an essential part of their environment and not the center of their focus.

Avoid distractive design by empowering the periphery.
Example 2: Tempescope. Physical display that visualizes various weather conditions based on online weather forecasts.

3. Amplify the best of technology and the best of users

Have you ever caught yourself repeating the same question to Siri over and over again? If you try to make robots act like humans you will end up with humans trying to act like robots.

Instead, try to bring out the best of users. Enable them to be human, but don’t try to become one of them. Take Google for example. It does a great job going through billions of websites and managing search results. But it doesn’t make the final decision for us. That’s what humans are good at.

Avoid distractive design, bring out the best of humans with technology!
Example 3. Take a look at sleep cycle tracking apps. They bring the best out of users by tracking their sleep cycles and waking them up at the appropriate time. Instead of trying to automatize them they help users to be in their best form.

4. Don’t talk too much!

Technology can communicate, but it doesn’t mean you always have to use human language. Use universal, nonverbal signs such as voices, physical sensations, lights or symbols. These are all recognizable from the periphery. And the best thing is that you don’t have to translate them to every language of the world!

Avoid distractive design by using universal, non-verbal signs
Example 4: Avoid distractive design by using non-verbal signs. This smart posture sensor buzzes when you exhibit poor posture, instead of sending push notifications.

5. Use only a minimal amount of technology!

Don’t over-automatize everything! The right amount of technology is what is necessary to solve the problem, nothing more. Everything else is just a distraction.

Keep calm and respect attention!

When designing a product keep in mind that your users will have many other things to focus on. Their attention is limited while they have important goals to reach. They want to live their life meaningfully and not being distracted from it. For this, they need products that help them reach their goals easily.

Don’t forget: attention will be the scarcest resource of our time. It already is, so use it wisely and your users will love you and your product!

We are curious about your opinions, please, share them in the comments below!