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A Q&A With Neema Moraveji Of Stanford University’s Calming Technology Lab

Join Neema Moraveji and Fast Company's Sarah Kessler on Monday, October 20th at 11 a.m. ET for a live chat about how designers can build sanity into their technologies.

Heavy multitasking has been linked with inability to focus, stress, depression, and anxiety. Unplugging is one popular response. But a growing group of entrepreneurs and researchers are considering how technology could actually help us focus and remain calm instead of increasing these side effects.

Fast Company’s Sarah Kessler recently spent a month trying a myriad of new products--sensors, brain-wave readers, breathing monitors, meditation apps, online happiness courses, and focus tools--in pursuit of a digitally enhanced zen. You can read about what she learned here.

One of the products Kessler tried, a breath monitor called Spire, was co-created by Neema Moraveji, the founder of the Calming Technology Lab at Stanford University. He has dedicated much of his academic career to researching ways technology makers can build state of mind into their products.

Join Moraveji and Fast Company's Sarah Kessler on Monday, October 20th at 11 a.m. ET for a live chat about how designers can build sanity into their technologies. We'll be taking your questions, too--submit them ahead of time using the "Make a comment" box below.
  • Hi, Sarah here. We're going to get started in about 45 minutes. Submit your questions to the "make a comment" box above.
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  • Hi everyone. Let's get started.
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  • Neema, since you're the founder of the Calming Technology Lab at Standford, I thought a good place to start would be to discuss what you mean by "calming technology."
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  • You're right, that is a good place to start :-)

    What we mean by 'calming technology' is different from 'relaxing technology.' Calm is the absence of anxiety. It doesn't necessarily mean you are relaxed.

    For example, a quarterback in the pocket making a good pass has got to be calm (but activated!). Giving a presentation at work works best if you are calm (but alert).

    Though there is a great need for downtime and relaxation in the modern world, we don't live there (or even want to live there) all the time. Instead, we want to transition between different states suitable to the current situation and, most often, it's useful to be in a calm state of mind going about it.
    by Neema Moraveji edited by Miles Kohrman 10/20/2014 3:07:11 PM
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  • Most people think of technology as something that distracts and overwhelms us -- why is it also a good tool for helping us achieve that calm state of mind?
    by Sarah Kessler edited by Miles Kohrman 10/20/2014 3:09:41 PM
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  • Technology is a good tool for supporting whatever our intentions are. Because there has been a growing desire for balance in this information-dense world, those intentions have manifested new classes of technologies that not only help us do new things but help us be how we want to be – within that information-dense world.

    We can use all the great characteristics of interactive, immersive, and social technologies to help us reach whatever ends we are after. In the case of calming technology, the goal is to cultivate a balanced state of mind in the same way that technology has helped us cultivate physical activity (if we choose to use those kinds of technologies – which is another question).

    Technology doesn't have to be something that distracts and overwhelms us. If the intention of the system designers is such, it can create a wide array of effects on our states of mind.
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  • What design principles can technology inventors use to build that intention into their devices? Is this something you expect all tech companies to consider when building general applications, or is it something that requires additional pieces of technology?
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  • On the one hand, product designers want to keep users on their site, using their apps, and generally taking part of their attention. 

    There is a potential for backlash, though: attention is a fragile domain and people can get very annoyed very quickly unless the value generated by the product is high enough to withstand the annoyance factor. So, a means of ensuring a product isn't interpreted as too burdensome or frustrating to use is to design such that the technology feels good to use. It makes the person feel genuinely good in some way.

    From a user's perspective, in a world where everybody is trying to get our attention, there is an opportunity for a new positive association created with a product that not only creates value but cares about my state of mind and makes me feel taken care of (instead of only making me feel worried, anxious, overwhelmed, and generally frazzled).

    In our lab, we surveyed dozens of different interactive products and found 10 general heuristics product designers can use to help ensure the designer is not creating those issues for users:
    by Neema Moraveji edited by Miles Kohrman 10/20/2014 3:26:28 PM
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  • Why would tech companies consider balanced state of mind when they're trying to please shareholders?
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  • Consumers (aka "people") are more educated, discerning, and sophisticated than ever. Companies are being forced by economic drivers to be more values-driven, authentic, and transparent than ever before. Of course, there are still companies that refuse to conduct business this way and continue to drive profits through coercion or domination of attention, but that is clearly not the only way. Many companies are driving profits by creating genuine value and creating user experiences that feel good WITHOUT creating frustration in the mind of the user. This is felt subconsciously and consciously by users, who appreciate this, which cultivates trust between product and consumer. Trust and loyalty are ever more valuable in a world with long tails of product options in every direction.
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  • Your solution to building state of mind into a device, Spire, monitors breathing. Why did you decide that breath was the best way to help users stay calm or focused?
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  • As part of my Ph.D. research at Stanford, I surveyed a number of different physiological indicators that would help provide feedback about one's state of mind as well as provide actionable feedback to do something about it.

    Of the ones I studied (heart rate variability, skin conductance, pupil dilation, eeg, etc.), the respiration signal was the most actionable and understandable. It was transparent as opposed to being a black box that needed abstraction to understand it.

    (From a product perspective, it always helps to give feedback about something that the user can control immediately. In this case the breath. If I tell you that your heart rate is too high, you can't control it directly, you have to actually use your breath to bring it down.)

    Interestingly enough, one doesn't need a sensor to sense one's own breathing. So Spire helps you cultivate a skill you already have – but also helps you do things that computers are good at: tracking, aggregating, and finding patterns. Humans wouldn't be able to do this with their breathing.

    Because you don't need a sensor to sense your own breath in this moment now, it becomes the perfect tool to bring a wandering mind to the present moment. I.e., it connects us to our bodies and helps clear our minds. 

    The breath is the one physiological signal that sits at the border of autonomic and conscious control. That means the nervous system regulates it but we have near-full control of it as well. This makes it an effective gas/brakes pedal for your brain and nervous system. It's a fascinating and satisfying topic to study and experience.

    Having awareness and the ability to regulate your own breathing is a lifelong tool useful in all the different areas of our life. Decision-making, health, productivity, fitness, etc.
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  • Here's a video about Spire:

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  • While you're approaching this problem by monitoring breath, there are a bunch of other companies approaching it in other ways. When I spent a month trying out tech products that advertise they will help users mitigate some side effects of technology, I found meditation-tracking headbands, apps that will completely block your access to the Internet, apps with inspirational slideshows, apps that track your interent useage, and so much more. It got to the point where managing my mindfulness tech became overwhelming in itself. What do you think is the best way to go about adding some of this calming tech into your life? How would you go about setting yourself up for more mindful computing and work?
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  • While we wait for Neema's response: 

    Sarah spent one month trying out a variety of wearable technology (to counteract the side effects of technology), including Spire. You can read her feature here. 

    When your breath indicates you’re tense, Spire offers exercises--like taking deep breaths--that research suggests could help put you back into a state of calm or focus.

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  • The first thing to do is to clarify in your mind that technology is never going to solve any problem but rather help us solve things we want to solve. So the first step is to get clear about what problem you want to solve. E.g., checking email too much, imbalance in my day, inability to focus and get absorbed in a task for long enough, can't sleep at night, etc.

    Then, identify the behavior that you feel is closest to the root of that problem.

    Then try to solve it yourself.

    If you find you need support, at this point you will really know what exactly you want support with. And you can integrate the tool into your life as a clear tool instead of a band-aid or tool in the 'kitchen sink'.

    Let's take an example: 

    You find that you stay up working late and browsing the web and then are wired and can't sleep or find your mind racing before you fall asleep. You find that the issue is that you don't even realize what time it is and your eyes are all wide-open even into the evening, staring at your screen.

    One tool I use is f.lux which takes the blue color out of my screen when the sun goes down in my city. That not only gives me a cue that it's evening but it reinforces to my body that it's evening to support my circadian rhythm.
    by Neema Moraveji edited by Miles Kohrman 10/20/2014 3:49:56 PM
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  • Some other ideas for setting yourself up for mindful computing at work: 

    1. set small goals and reward yourself.  e.g. focus on 1 task for 1 hour that you think may only take 30min. reward yourself with some email after the 1h.

    2. close your email browser and open it when you want to read it.

    3. disable notifications for new emails.

    4. schedule time on your calendar for general "web browsing" time. 
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  • That's good advice--definitely more effective to start with the problem than with the tool. Thank you so much for joining us!
    by Sarah Kessler edited by Miles Kohrman 10/20/2014 3:52:45 PM
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  • That's it, everybody. Thanks for reading.
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  • Thank you very much as well. :-)
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