Things are complicated. Time is fragmented. Attention is scarce. Technology encourages interruption. As I get older, I find it harder and harder to function in the noise. I need space to breathe to make anything worthwhile. And I’m not alone in this. The New York Times and The Atlantic have ongoing features about how computers affect our quality of life. Harvard Business Review offers advice on training your brain to focus and making room for reflection.
Linda Stone, a tech writer and consultant, has studied this problem for years. “We’ve been operating in an increasingly noisy world and taking on the job of staying on top of everything,” she said in 2007. “Even though the world may continue to be noisy, increasingly we are craving stillness, meaningful connections, and we’re yearning to get to the bottom of things.” There are more people, more problems, and more things to do. It’s hard to find quiet in such a connected world.
If technology overload isn’t reason enough to bring a peaceful conviction to our work, there are millions of people with anxiety disorders to consider. About 18% of U.S. adults have issues with anxiety, myself included.
Anxiety pulls the mind from the present to another moment, just out of reach. When we’re anxious, we experience the tension of being in one time and place while thinking about another. Whether concerned for the future or replaying bits of the past, someone in this mindset might feel hurried, tired, agitated, or distracted. Like an overwhelmed multi-tasker, they need space to breathe and time for reflection.
The anti-calm culture
In our messy world, where every moment is an advertising opportunity, a calming voice is subversive in itself. But we are a subversive crew, driving cultural change while helping people make decisions and improve things for themselves. We replace old and rotten with crisp and fresh. Our words inform, relieve, connect, and guide. What better time is there for us to help calm and collect?
So let’s create the quiet we need. We’re makers. And we’re not making for the sake of adding to the pile. We’re here to make things better, clearer, and easier. We should add calmer and quieter to that list.
We create peace in the same way we create meaningful messages: with time and attention. Let’s look at some ways to do it.
Whether it’s a health resource or product page, people visit a website for information and direction. The way we present ideas and recommendations affects the reader’s mood—as Cicero said: “It is difficult to tell how much men’s minds are conciliated by a kind manner and gentle speech.” In a moment of distress, a calm, reassuring voice can do wonders.
The easiest way to show kindness and empathy in interface writing is to match the reader’s likely emotions with an appropriate, authentic tone. MailChimp is a master at this. (Lucky for us, their Voice and Tone guide is public and responsive.)
MailChimp brings emotion to the otherwise dry topic of email newsletters. When you sign in, Freddie (their friendly mascot) greets you with a random joke: “New shirt? Very nice!” If the site is down for maintenance, you see a kind message with light humor: “Apologies for interrupting your email fun, but we’re experiencing a problem at one of our data centers. Our engineers are on the case, and will have things back to normal shortly.” The MailChimp team crafts each message to reflect your anticipated feelings, while offering instructions with calm authority.
We too can bring personality and authenticity to interface-making. Here are a few ways to do it:
- Put yourself in the user’s shoes. Is information organized by their needs? Does it filter unnecessary details and create a sense of focus? Protecting the user’s interests encourages trust and engagement.
- Be friendly. Is the tone empathetic? Does it reflect the user’s mood? Does it sound like a nice, genuine person said it? Read it aloud to make sure.
- Anticipate next steps. Does this message relate to an article or larger topic? Can you provide links or tips to answer potential follow-up questions? Be a great butler and connect the dots for site visitors.
When we address questions in the reader’s mind, we show them the care they deserve. Once we meet a person’s needs, we help them move forward with confidence.
Strong editors glean the best of what’s there and remove the rest. Uncluttered messages are an “antidote to overwhelm and overstimulation.”  When we remove rubble, clear-cut paths emerge and beg for hiking.
We should eliminate distractions for people. If they came to read, turn the light on and let them read. If they want to learn, give them a quiet place to study. Whatever they’re after, help them do it in peace. Make it readable, watchable, and hearable—and keep the ads out of the way.
With clear, minimal messages, Readmill is a beautiful example of rigorous editing. Their web content sets the tone for the app’s airy, elegant interface by telling you what you need to know and getting out of the way. You can even sense their pride in editing in their job descriptions.
This uncompromising level of detail gives people natural space to focus, read, consider, and learn. We can make room for breathing and reflection. Here’s how:
- Think all the way to calm. Does the information structure guide the reader through the argument? Does it help people make the best choices they can? Does it make sense? Does it flow? As Tiffani Jones Brown says, we have to make things hard to make them easy.
- Remove distractions. Does the content respect the reader’s limited time and attention? Is everything on the page essential? Can you remove anything that draws the eye or filter unimportant details? Give the reader a focused space to digest the information.
- Make it honest. Does the writing speak the truth? Does it get to the heart of the issue? Is it authentic? Can you replace abstractions or fluff with concrete words? Make sure the writing is genuine and truthful.
If we are rigorous as interface editors, we can help people finish tasks and close windows, so they can go outside or read something more interesting. Because we all need space to breath and time to reflect. As Pico Iyer said in The Joy of Quiet: “[I]t’s only by having some distance from the world that you can see it whole, and understand what you should be doing with it.”
More about quiet
- The Joy of Quiet by Pico Iyer
- The Autumn of the Multitaskers by Walter Kirn
- Recovering from Information Overload by Derek Dean and Caroline Webb
- Writing in the Age of Distraction by Cory Doctorow
- Statistics: Generalized Anxiety Disorder Among Adults from NIH ↩
- Continuous Partial Attention by Linda Stone ↩