All the buzz over "#unplug," Baratunde Thurston’s excellent piece on "taking a digital vacation," wasn’t surprising. The article tapped into an idea that’s catching on with Americans: Life in 2013 moves really fast, and sometimes that’s exhausting. All those products and services that have promised to make our lives easier and more efficient have also overstimulated us to the point of collapse.
The backlash against such overload has a variety of names—"unplugging," "down-shifting," "digital detox"—but the trend is clear. Silent meditation retreats, once relegated to the quasi-religious fringe, are moving toward the mainstream. Popular apps such as Freedom and Anti-Social empower users to shut down social-network access for set amounts of time. The islands of St. Vincent and the Grenadines have even launched a tourism campaign around surrendering connected devices at hotel check-in.
For most people, these efforts to unplug are by necessity temporary. After 25 days, even a refreshed and invigorated Baratunde Thurston returned to the "matrix." And I don’t blame him. Our fast-moving, information-rich, ultra-connected world is an amazing and exciting place in which to live.
Designers, pay attention to this yearning for greater simplicity. The most successful consumer products and services of the future will be those that not only help people perform tasks quicker and more easily but which also keep them from risking technological burnout. The goal is to help people live more balanced and sustainable lives.
In part, that means slowing things down. For years, proponents of "slow design" have been advocating just that—building healthy, meaningful relationships with our stuff, our planet, and other people through local and artisanal products, DIY resourcefulness, and sustainable lifecycles and materials. While that conversation has been thought-provoking, "slow design" also includes a heavy dose of neo-Luddism and anti-consumerist sentiment that has slowed its march toward the mainstream.
The question remains: How might our collective longing to unplug realistically inspire new products (and product ecosystems) that fit within our competitive business landscape?
At Altitude, we found four ways to product-ize the best elements of "slow" while still living in a world where our technology moves faster than our brains:
Slow used to mean inefficient. Now that technology has become less of a limiting factor, "slow" has taken on a more nuanced meaning. In certain contexts, such as virus-scanning software or medical diagnostics, slow is a reassuring signal for thoroughness and reliability, whereas faster-than-expected processing rates are signs of inaccuracy or lack of thoroughness.
In product design, slow can also improve functionality. Blindly chasing speed alone can come at the detriment of other, competing values. Altitude recently partnered with Oster to design their new A6 Clipper, and our research revealed that professional pet groomers actually preferred slower motor speeds because high clipping speeds created vibrations in their hands that reduced productivity and became painful over time.
If you manipulate workflow tempo through a product’s UI, it can make for a more emotionally satisfying user experience. That’s because it brings a human sensibility into a fast-paced, digital context.
User interface research by Chris Harrison, at the Human Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon, has shown that people respond negatively to pauses or delays toward the end of moving progress bars. One study showed that when given the option, users preferred progress bars that were intentionally slower to start and which then ramped up in pace toward the end, "providing a sense of rapid conclusion."
There’s obviously no one-size-fits-all lesson about where to slow things down, but a product’s UI is often the place where the mechanical comes to life, and it’s important to design its graphical and temporal elements in ways that recognize common human biases and rhythms.
Sometimes, people want to take the harder route and invest valuable "elbow grease" in the activities they care about. There’s something about home-brewed beer and long-marinated steak that feels special precisely because of the effort they require.
The classic Chemex pour-over coffeemaker, a longtime design piece in the Museum of Modern Art, has seen a recent resurgence in popularity among Millennials. Though the product requires more effort than a Keurig or Nespresso machine, it offers a coffee brewing experience that feels meditative and deeply authentic in its simplicity. The process is evocative, a reminder of the way people made coffee before Starbucks and instant K-Cups appeared.
Similarly, Kamado-style cookers such as "The Big Green Egg," while more labor-intensive and complex than typical gas grills, enable people to slow-smoke specialty meats or pizzas; they provide an intriguing centerpiece for daylong social events.
While most consumer products inevitably deteriorate with use, others actually become better. Cast-iron cookware is a great example because continued use seasons it and protects it from future rust. Similarly, new Birkenstock sandals look identical to every other off-the-shelf pair. But after months of wear, those sandals have literally molded to the unique contours of the owner’s feet. "Smart" devices of tomorrow might learn to do the same.
Connected products, such as the Nest thermostat, learn from our past behaviors and proactively recognize patterns in our daily decision-making. When we use a product over time—and it continues to perform as well as (or better than) it did when we first started using it—our emotional bond with it gets strengthened.
Ultimately, when I think of "slow design," my mind returns vividly to my grandfather’s old fly-fishing lures, all hooked into his outdoors vest. He owned some of those lures for 20 years and had deep emotional connections to and great stories about each one. They became part of the fabric of his fishing rituals, and of his life.
Today’s electronic gadgets are different. They’re faster, stronger, and less recognizable than the simpler tools of the past. But by incorporating elements of "slow design," we can create enduring products and innovative services that help consumers overcome their anxieties around modern technology—without having to completely unplug.
[Images: Beach chairs, Thailand, Birkenstock via Shutterstock]