Amazon, Google and Volvo Want to Seamlessly Integrate the Internet of Things Into Your Life

HackerAgency chief explains the calm design revolution

Headshot of Christopher Heine

CANNES, France—The internet of things (IoT), as a topic, has had marketers buzzing for a few years now. As it slowly becomes a reality in the lives of average people, some brands are getting out in front of the space more than others. 

But there's an emerging concept within IoT known as calm design, explained Haydn Sweterlitsch, chief creative officer at HackerAgency, who spoke at Cannes Lions earlier this week. Calm design is all about creating technology that blends seamlessly with regular life, where consumers don't have to necessarily focus on a device or feature while using it. A teapot is an old-world tech example, where one doesn't have to be in the same room to know that the tea is ready thanks to the whistle.  

According to Sweterlitsch, Amazon, Google, Telsa and Volvo are brands leading the calm-design movement. None of the brands are his clients, to be clear. In the video below, he explains why those companies already have a competitive advantage.

Here's more of what he had to say from our in-depth discussion.

Adweek: Why should marketers care about calm tech?

Sweterlitsch: Cisco estimates that there will be 50 billion connected devices by 2020. In the hyper-connected world of the internet of things, customer attention will be stretched thin and scarcer than ever. When virtually all of the objects in your life are connected devices, distracting updates, notices and interruptions could quickly go toxic and make you shut down completely. Customers are near a breaking point with marketing—over 20 percent of smartphone users already utilize ad-blocking technology. Marketers who continue to contribute to the noise by clinging to interruptive techniques to steal customer attention risk being ignored and becoming extinct. Quite simply, calm design can help prevent this.

It sounds like something that may not be "a thing" for a number of years. When will it become "a thing," really?

It's already a thing. A young thing, yes, but it's hitting a growth spurt. And for marketers who insist on play the waiting game may only have themselves to blame when customers tune out. If you keep trying to grab users with constant messages that are irrelevant or lack real value, customers will soon ignore you completely. Between the warm reception customers have given the Amazon Echo, the exponential increase in connected products available and the explosion of the smart bot population across the digital landscape, the marketing opportunities to leverage new platforms—and to interact with customers offscreen—have already arrived. In fact, at HackerAgency we're already in the works developing Alexa Skills for a few client CRM (customer-relationship management) programs—and these will likely be live within the next month or so.

Interesting. Will calm design affect advertising via IoT in some fashion?

Undoubtedly yes. Advertising has always relied on an interruptive approach to marketing and design to acquire customer attention. From stopping power in print and broadcast to pre-roll, page takeovers, MMS, click-bait content and push notifications—marketers have always traded on interruption and distraction. If bad marketing is a dinosaur, the IoT is a giant meteor—and may be an extinction level event for advertising as we know it. Look at the numbers and you already see diminishing returns on this kind of marketing. With all the noise users are going to deal with in an age of ubiquitous technology, marketing needs to evolve or die. 

Are brands already using or paying attention to the concept? If so, which brands?

Any brand that wants to have meaningful interactions with customers is going to have to have them in a way that's not dependent on interruption or distraction. You see calm design everywhere in product design. There's the Roomba, with its indicator light and distinctive tones. In automotive, the classic car dash is rapidly evolving to inform and empower as autonomous vehicles get closer to market. The Amazon Echo is the leader out of the gate when it comes to conversation as a platform. A logical future iteration is for Alexa to initiate conversations instead of waiting to be summoned. She probably won't just start talking to you—that would be too HAL9000-ish (of Space Odyssey) for users right now. Instead, her colored rings could pulse when she has something to say—much like an ancient answering machine the cavemen depended on in 1996. It will likely gain traction and crescendo in the world of data-driven CRM first. That's where the real one-to-one, informed, engaging and real-time conversations and stories will have the most value for brands.

What other problems could calm design solve?

This is a great question. The [internet of things] is going to fundamentally change how people relate to technology, so the tectonic shifts in marketing are really only the tip of the iceberg. The world of tech follows Darwinian principles. Only the platforms, devices and products that gain traction with users or industry segments survive. And beyond survival, for successful technologies to really thrive, they must continually adapt and evolve as user needs and the ecosystem changes. With the velocity of progress we're seeing in AI, robotics and data, we're on the threshold of an absolute explosion in connected, intelligent technology, right? We can only imagine what new strains and demands this will cause on the already frayed and frantic psycho-emotional state of the average user. As Mark Weiser predicted: The scarce resource of the 21st Century won't be technology, it will be attention. Calm design is an effective, elegant and empowering way to have meaningful, useful interaction that doesn't add to the noise and toxicity of our hyper connected world. Our prime functions, as humans, should be thinking, feeling, relating, deciding and acting—not computing. With the ubiquity of connected technology that we'll be immersed within, things may fast-forward from magic to manic to toxic. Calm design and the atmospheric approach to marketing will help allow humans to remain human, in a very real way. And that, in and of itself, is huge. 

@Chris_Heine Christopher Heine is a New York-based editor and writer.