The Rise of Calm Technology

When was the last time you enjoyed a beautiful sunset without feeling the urge to take a picture and share it with your network? Or the last time you enjoyed a nice dinner with your partner with no other interruption than the waiter taking your order? For me, those moments have become fewer in the last decade, and I know you have noticed this too.

Our attention span has been reduced from 12 to 9 seconds in the last decades (shorter than a Goldfish), political polarisation is on the rise and our capacity to have a simple conversation and to respectfully disagree has been damaged. This is not only hurting our societies but also taking a toll on our mental health while eroding hallmarks of maturity like patience, humility, responsibility and commitment.

When we analyse the different factors that have taken us to this situation, we can see that most of them are not new. In fact, polarization and tribalism, attention problems and mental health issues have been with us since the beginning of history, however this time, there is a new and more sophisticated player in the game, acting as a trigger. If you have been working in tech for long enough, you are probably familiar with it or you and your team might even work to keep its numbers up. I am talking about the Engagement Rate.

Engagement?

The engagement rate is one of the most important metrics for most of the online companies out there. It measures how effectively your brand is connecting with your existing or potential customers. In social media or advertising engines, engagement metrics are calculated based on the number of likes, comments, shares, and clicks your content generates.

Basically, we can define engagement as attention sustained for the longest possible period of time. Online companies manage this concept at a large scale.

Engagement equals your attention multiplied by the time you spend ‘engaged’.

There are whole teams of analysts, designers, product managers and engineers working together in the pursuit of this magic number. Behind the complex algorithms, benchmarks and KPIs there is this simple logic: The more people engaged with what you offer at the beginning of the funnel, the more money will appear at the bottom.

A simplified version of the Conversion Funnel

“The best way to engage honestly with the marketplace via Twitter is to never use the words ‘engage,’ ‘honestly,’ or ‘marketplace.” — Jeffrey Zeldman

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Problems and Solutions

Profit is not the problem, being able to generate a surplus that we can use to grow our business and compete while offering products and services that add value to our lives is as wonderful as necessary. The problem comes when there is a clear negative impact on our health and our societies as a result. It is not the end, but the means to that end.

I also don’t share the catastrophic narrative which claims technology is all evil at the service of the few, not the many, that the world is falling apart and we live in horrible times. Despite what you see in the news and on the internet, there has never been a better time to be alive and the reason for this to be true is mainly thanks to science, technology and an economic system that allows these two to thrive.

Instead, we should consider how our perspective can play a role in the individual and collective decisions we make. We tend to lose focus driven by short-term solutions and a very narrow perspective of what we can do with the resources we have.

Tech is not the exemption. Using the engagement rate as one of the main numbers to pursuit is a clear example of putting the focus on the wrong metric. It translates into unhealthy habits that might look beneficial in the short term, but they are simply not sustainable in the middle to long run. The impact of this goes beyond the digital world.

The End of the Engagement Era

While we see how problems arise triggered by the use of social media and digital products, we are also starting to see different initiatives that could build the path to possible solutions and mitigate the effects of an engagement focus world. I am not an expert, neither I have all the answers nor have I a crystal ball to predict the future, but I have identified some signs that could indicate the end of an era in tech:

Pursuing Different Metrics: Awareness over Engagement

It might sound like semantics but there is a fundamental difference between the two. Awareness doesn’t focus on how much time our users interact with our product but on how aware they are it exists. You might argue that it is hard to obtain good awareness numbers without engagement, but I think it is not impossible if we replace engagement rates with:

  • Satisfaction levels: Good products make happy customers. Addictive products make engaged users. Build good products, not addictive ones.
  • Sentiment: It’s possible for users not to feel satisfied with a service or a specific feature but still have a positive perception of your brand and offerings. Are the emotions that come to mind ones of delight and enjoyment or rather the opposite?
  • Incentives: An incentives program can make wonders when trying to reach and retain more customers. Making them engaged with our products is easier, putting the focus on what they care about instead of you is key to achieve this.
  • Referral programs: Similar to incentives, a referral program is the same old ‘word-of-mouth’ with clear benefits for your product or services, but with the users engaging with each other in their own basis instead of you.

Health Awareness

With the disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic, health has regained its value as a key factor to sustain and improve. With this crisis, we are slowly learning that it is a mistake to separate health metrics from economic indicators. While lockdowns and specific restrictions for a period of time might be necessary to reduce the infections, it is also true that as a result, financial uncertainty and higher unemployment rates are associated with an increased risk of early death. I can see new business models emerging where health has a more predominant role to play.

In a world where the scientific and technological advances are making us live longer than ever, building products that make us sick has been an unnecessary counterpart to the general trend, and now we are in a better position to start introducing measurable health data as part of our business KPIs. I believe this is a positive change that could dictate our future relationship with technology.

A return to Connectivity

There is a clear difference between spending one hour talking with your mother and spending the same amount of time scrolling through Instagram posts. Originally, social platforms were born primarily as a way to connect people and create communities. We all know this is not the only use case anymore, but we still use it as a way to connect with people we care about.
A progressive return to this model where we might spend the same amount of time focus on our connections rather than content alone might as well benefit our health without impacting revenue goals.

The Rise of Calm Technology

Calm Tech is a movement that aims to build technology where interactions happen in the periphery instead that at the centre of attention. The term was coined in 1995 by PARC Researchers John Seely Brown and Mark Weiser as a response to the increasing complexities that information technologies were creating. In their own words, Calm Technology is:

“That which informs but doesn’t demand constantly our focus or attention.”

We can see that some small steps are already happening in that direction with the introduction of some tools based on these principles, like Apple’s Screen Time or the relatively new Instagram’s “You’re All Caught Up” feature. However, there is still much more to be done, and we can’t expect design and technology alone to lead this change. As presented by Liz Stinson, Executive director of Eye of Design:

“For big technology companies to design products that go beyond mere calm-washing will require them to rethink the business motivations that led to these design decisions in the first place.”

A New Path

We, humans, are a resilient and highly adaptable species. History shows that humanity seems to have this necessity to get to the edge and check the abyss before making things better. That’s why I believe we can change and improve our relationship with technology at a large scale, bringing the focus to metrics that will aim for sustainable economic growth and life quality with a more human-centred approach. We are not yet at the edge of the abyss, but we are getting closer, the good news is that we are also starting to see the new path that can take us away from it.