“Calm Technology” in Museums

Before attending this year’s MCN Conference in Denver, I had never heard of keynote speaker Amber Case. Now, I’m mildly obsessed.

The robot vacuum Roomba is an example of “calm technology”– it communicates through sound, not words.

Case is a “cyborg anthropologist.” Put simply, she studies how humans’ relationship with technology is changing the way individuals and cultures think, act, and understand our worlds.  In her keynote, Case discussed the 8 principles of calm technology, a topic she has also written about extensively online and in her book Calm Technology, Design for the Next Generation of Devices.  “Calm technology” centers on the idea that our world is made up of information that competes for our attention, so when designing products and experiences, it’s important to only include features that are absolutely essential. These decisions affect our ability to process and make sense of what something – whether a device, object, or environment – is telling us.  While Case’s talk did not focus on museums specifically, a few of the ideas she shared struck me as particularly relevant for museums – especially when designing for exhibitions.

  • Principle II: Technology should inform and create calm

This is the idea that technology should give people what they need to solve a problem, and nothing more (people should be able to focus on being human rather than on “computing”). Applied to museums, this is a reminder not to overwhelm visitors with information or instructions and to instead find ways for them to retain the sense of calm they (hopefully) walked in with. Doing so sets the stage for visitors to experience wonder and delight (two things you are unlikely to experience when overwhelmed).  And, it leaves room for visitors to focus on enjoying time spent with family and friends instead of complex problem-solving.

  • Principle III: Technology should make use of the periphery

Case says a calm technology will “move easily from the periphery of our attention, to the center, and back,” and, that the periphery is still informing without overburdening. What I love about this principle is the inherent challenge to create experiences that take into account a person’s shifting state of attention. For instance, how might attract screens on interactives or films passively “inform” in the event a visitor never ends up stopping to use those components in-depth? How might sound in an exhibition transition from ambient noise meant to subtly create atmosphere to an active part of a visitor’s experience, and then back again?

  • Principle V: Technology can communicate, but it doesn’t need to speak

Here Case challenges us to think critically about whether words are really essential to effective and accessible communication. She gives the example of Roomba, the popular hands-free robot vacuum.  Roomba is universally understood because it communicates through sound and tone rather than through words. When Roomba completes a task, it chirps; when it gets stuck, it emits a somber tone. Everyone understands this no matter their age or what language they speak. How might museums rely less on words in exhibition spaces to promote clarity and accessibility?

The principles of calm technology are simple. But often it’s the simplest, most obvious ideas that are easily forgotten.  After listening to Case speak, I’m not only thinking more intentionally about the presence of technology in museums, but also in my own daily life.

How are you inspired by the principles of calm technology?


For more on Amber Case, visit caseorganic.com.

For more on the principles of calm technology (including fantastic research papers and work that inspired them), visit calmtech.com.

I also highly recommend Case’s 2010 TED Talk, “We are all Cyborgs Now.”

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