Less is More When Designing the Internet of Things

Back when the field that would come to be known as ubicomp or, more recently, the Internet of Things was just being forged, pioneer Mark Weiser also referred to it as Calm Technology.

It's a shame that the term has been ousted by the Internet of Things, because it's easy to see how connecting things to the Internet would be interesting and useful. It's less obvious that making them unobtrusive and calm is just as important.

Russell Davies summed up the risks with ignoring the calm side of ubicomp in his post reflecting on Post Digital the other day:

'I wrote a thing a few years ago wondering about this kind of stuff, imagining what my fellow marketing professionals would do with cheap and easy robotics if they got their hands on it. The answer popped into my head fully formed and depressing. They’d build robo-chuggers. Cute, charming robots designed to replacer the ‘chuggers’ (or charity muggers) that roam British streets looking to sign people up to Direct Debits for good causes. It seemed like one of those slightly parodic speculative things that would never come to pass but might illustrate some worrying issues. It got built last year. Only they came up with a better name – ChugBot.'

Luckily, the more leading lights in the Internet of Things understand that what you exclude is more important than what you add, and the accumulation of a couple of quotes on that topic recently prompted this blog post.

While explaining the design of the Arrivals "glanceable" display, Dan Williams said:

'The hardest part of designing a glanceable is restraint. It’s technically very easy to add extra information and features to the display. Adding the airport code of the nearest city to a checkin, colour coding the text with the Dopplr city colour, clicking a checking to flip it over and show details. Each feature addition would detract from the purpose, to do less than the existing sites & apps.'

And in an interview about the announcement of the Little Printer, BERG's Matt Webb explained that they'd experimented with more, and found it wanting:

'And Little Printer isn't just a dumb pipe, mindlessly spooling out Twitter updates and RSS headlines. (An early prototype did act like this, Webb says: "It was incredibly annoying.") Powered by another new product called BERG Cloud, Little Printer condenses and curates its content, treating that 10-inch strip like the precious real estate it is.'

It's an ethos we share here at MCQN Ltd, working out ways to have the technology get out of the way and strike the balance between timely interaction and intrusion. Our tools should aim to entrance and delight when we're receptive to their messages, but to also be ignorable when we're busy with something more important.