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Minimalism and Calm Technology on Thoughtful Design

21 September 2021 •

By: Dylan Design

Good design can often mean different things to different audiences, however, something that often remains constant in good design is a high degree of thoughtful, intentional and purposeful problem-solving. But how can valuable design be created? Often product and service solutions can be overly complex and confusing to users. This is found when the purpose and the focus of a product are not well established, leaving the user overwhelmed, frustrated or confused within the design solution.

When we think of the apps on our phone and the notifications we receive that request us to check back to the products and services that we use, how many of those notifications are truly enhancing your day and your experience with a specific product? I often find myself having to take time away from what I am doing and pay attention to notifications that have not enhanced or made any difference to my day whatsoever. Where it would have been better not to receive them at all, as it would mean I wouldn’t have to spend the time simply dismissing the notification. So how can we make a more valuable product that enhances users' experiences rather than cause loss of focus?

Below we will go through the principles of minimalism and calm technology, and see how value can be drawn through using some of the principles in these ideas to help guide our design thinking toward user-centred design that is thoughtful and valuable to a product’s end-user.


Minimalism, what is it?

Minimalism is often depicted as the reduction of everything down to the absolute least required and is often associated with having very little personality or individuality. However, I do not believe this to be a proper definition of minimalism.

I would define minimalism as the pursuit of meaningfulness in what one has or does, it is the intentional pursuit and focus on what is most important to an individual. The purposeful reduction of things and experiences that do not bring more value than they take, and the prioritisation of the things and experiences that do add more value. This means that the individual removes things or experiences that do not align with what they value most, in favour of making space for that which is.

It is important when designing to keep in mind that this concept is very applicable when considering an individual’s cognitive load or level of decision fatigue. When designing, it is important to ensure that what is created is not laborious but easy for the user to get where they want to be. In order to achieve this, a designer needs to use the principles of user-centred design. It is vital to define what the purpose of a product is, in order to establish what is important for the one using the product.

I could summarise minimalism as, less but better or less is more, in the sense that it allows an individual to focus on what is valuable to them.

Some principles of minimalism would include:

  • Simplicity
  • Clarity
  • Intentionality
  • Hierarchy
  • Prioritisation of value
  • Attention to detail
  • Purpose
  • Focus
  • Emphasising that which enables meaningfulness instead of overcrowding.
  • Process of defining and quantifying what is important.

We can see many of these principles in Dieter Rams “Ten Principles of Good Design”. As he is an Industrial Designer these pertain to the design of physical products, however, this design philosophy is extremely relevant to the design of digital products. The following are Rams’ ten principles:

  • Good Design Is Innovative
  • Good Design Makes a Product Useful
  • Good Design Is Aesthetic
  • Good Design Makes the Product Understandable
  • Good Design Is Unobtrusive
  • Good Design Is Honest
  • Good Design Is Long-Lasting
  • Good Design Is Thorough Down to the Last Detail
  • Good Design Environmentally Friendly (both physically and mentally)
  • Good Design Involves As Little Design as Possible

Calm Technology, what is it?

“The scarce resource of the future will be our attention”, this statement has become more true over the past few years, with everything we interact with asking for or requiring our attention, how can we introduce calm into our design?

Any person is only able to focus their attention on a finite number of things, calm technology is about respecting the user’s attention and allowing them to focus on the items that are most important to them. It is to design compassionately, with the idea that many people have a significant number of things happening at any given time. How can we add to a user's experience in a busy environment and wherever the user may find themselves while not demanding to take from the user at all times?

Calm technology is all about designing unobtrusive products and services, that should be there when they are needed and not be demanding our attention when not needed. It’s the idea that technology should complement the lives we choose to live while respecting our time and attention, rather than taking over our lives and constantly creating chaos.

Calm technology could be summarised as less is purposeful and attention is meaningful.

Evaluations to think about when designing using calm technology:

  • This design should not demand the user’s whole attention.
  • Does the design allow for the user to feel situated in space and time regarding your solution? i.e do they have an awareness of what is happening now, what has happened, and what will happen?
  • Does the design solution have a hierarchy of importance, with the most important items made clear in a non-overbearing manner?
  • Is that which is not the most important in the periphery, where the user is able to access it easily when they are actively looking for it, but not be bombarded when they are not?
  • Do the interactions within my design introduce calm?
  • Does my solution allow the user to tailor the design to their individual needs and behaviour?
  • How can the design make use of sensory communication, emotive or physical, in a positive manner to the user?

Principles for calm technology:

  • Technology should require the smallest possible amount of attention
  • Technology should inform and create calm
  • Technology should make use of the periphery
  • Technology should amplify the best of technology and the best of humanity
  • Technology can communicate, but doesn’t need to speak (shout)
  • Technology should work even when it fails
  • The right amount of technology is the minimum needed to solve the problem
  • Technology should respect social norms

How can we apply these principles to product design, user experience design and user interface design?

Now that we have had a bit of a look into minimalism and calm technology, how can we get practical in our design with these principles in mind?

Though many products are complex in their requirements and inner workings, it is important to present clearly and purposefully to the user, only that which is important to them in order to solve the problem they are facing.

How can we simplify? This requires the designer to understand the users extremely well in order to ensure that what has been done is in itself intuitive. The designer also needs to understand the technical requirements of what needs to be created in order to have the user do as few interactions as is necessary to achieve the desired outcome.

Reducing mental costs, how can you make experiences lighter, simpler, and more clear, are there unnecessary parts that can be removed? The more understandable a design is, the more users tend to delight in using it. Consider how a user is notified of something or how they will receive information, is it obtrusive and demanding, or does it allow the user to lightly consider what is necessary or beneficial to them? Can this interaction, notification, screen or step be removed? If so, how will it reduce user attention and decision fatigue? If it can not be eliminated how could this interaction be changed to make it not demand the attention of a user?

Is there a hierarchy of importance in the design and is it understood from a user context? If everything is of equal importance in a design solution then nothing is truly important. Be mindful of the user's priorities and their relative importance. Again, this requires designers to know the user very well in order to prioritise value. Can we engage sensory responses to communicate information? Light, touch and even emotive interactions? No user base is exactly the same, how can we design for this?

Does personalisation exist for the user in the design, and are they able to tailor what is meaningful to them? Or does the product have the ability to adapt to user behaviour? Reduce and eliminate noisy and anxiety-inducing motivational and emotional triggers. Understand why exactly this product should exist, and communicate this meaningfulness truthfully throughout the design and its interactions. You can do this by defining and distilling the value to the user. Do not simply reduce aimlessly for the sake of it, but emphasise the core values of the product, not obnoxiously, but in order to communicate clearly. Place the remaining additions and features that assist the main value proposition into the periphery. Where the user can access it when they need to, but not have it add to decision fatigue when these features are not in use.

Minimalism is about defining purpose and value to an individual through defining what is of the highest value to them, it is also the pursuit of this meaningfulness. Calm technology is a design philosophy that respects the user in their pursuit of what is of the highest value to them. Calm technology can aid in this pursuit when a product provides value to the user while giving them what they are looking for in a calm and unobtrusive manner. All this is done so as to not ruin an users environment both in physical space but also in their headspace. This is also a method for ensuring that users have a positive and beneficial experience in whatever is designed. Ultimately this will benefit you as more users/customers make use of your solution.

Thoughtful design is not only designing for the benefit of those that are creating a solution but also about ensuring a product is meaningful to its users, all while deploying empathy for those who are looking for a solution. It is always good to take some time to think about how designs can ensure the highest value to an individual, by discovering and actively focusing on what is meaningful to users in the context of what problem has been solved. While supporting and promoting the user’s own purpose, as defined by the individuals themselves.

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21 September 2021
By: Dylan

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