Sit, Siri! Designing Our Tech to Have Good Etiquette

Amber Case
7 min readAug 17, 2023
Sometimes we need to tell our devices what to do. Illustration by the author.

If you’re lucky, you awake in the morning to an overeager puppy who bounds onto your bed with happy yelps and kisses. It’s a pretty welcome start to the day, even when the bounding starts while you’re still half-asleep.

Most of us, however, begin our morning with a completely different kind of barking.

Technology has exploded into our lives like a needy pet, demanding our constant attention from the moment we wake. The beeps and pings of notifications resonate like ceaseless barking, while flashing messages nip at our heels, yanking us out of our sleep.

In the rush to make devices ubiquitous and “smart,” tech companies have created for us a monstrous pet that resists training, is not very affectionate, and is definitely not house broken.

What’s fundamentally missing in our technology is a sense of etiquette, a broad set of social norms and expectations which set a baseline of dignity and respect. “Etiquette” might be a somewhat out-dated term when it comes to human relationships. But our technology products are not people — they’re even nowhere close to deserving the same love we have for our pets. The same can definitely be said for tech corporations, which are supposed to be serving us, not the other way around.

Etiquette by definition is about graceful relationships between different kinds of people. Good design is about designing calm relationships between technology and people.

So we should expect our products to practice proper etiquette. As designers, we should create experiences with that etiquette in mind.

For instance, here’s how some classic adages of etiquette might be applied to an app’s user experience:

  • Whisper, don’t shout: Audio alerts can be subtle and meaningful. Abrasive, loud, or suddenly jarring noises aren’t necessary for getting information across, unless in an emergency..
  • Inform, don’t alarm: Notifications can convey information without urgency. Calm visual and audio cues can still alert users.
  • Ask, don’t assume: Often, apps ask if we want to opt into various features during the setup process, as if assuming we’ll understand their utility. Apps might instead offer to suggest various notifications and next steps as they happen. Delta Airlines’ app has helpful communications just like this: “You checked a bag into flight DL179, would you like to receive a notification when your bag is on the conveyor belt at your destination?” It’s an example of a well-designed notification that occurs right when people need it, alleviating uncertainty.

An expectation of etiquette from our devices shouldn’t just be confined to app notifications. Consider, for example, how that “whisper, don’t shout” adage would apply in visual UI design:

Visually whispering with gradient softening

“Gradient softening” refers to subtly and gradually transitioning between different states in an interface or technology. Rather than abrupt, harsh jumps between screens, colors, volumes, etc., changes progressively blend in and out.

Above: The one sec app obscures the screen of addicting social media apps for 10 seconds and asks for an intention before allowing the user to access the app.

The one sec app makes great use of gradients — which is quite fitting, because the application is designed to give you a relaxing pause before launching Twitter and other (usually stressful) social media apps.

The goal is to create a more seamless, calming flow between different elements in the experience. Hard lines and stark contrasts are “softened” into smoother, subtler transitions that are less jarring. Gradual gradients replace harsh divisions, guiding the user experience in a more harmonious direction.

For example, when a notification pops up, rather than suddenly flashing brightly, it could fade in gently. Colors on a screen could blend softly rather than being divided into hard edges. Audio alerts could gradually increase in volume instead of blaring loudly without warning.

Gradient softening applies the idea of gentle transitions to create technology experiences that are more organic.

Lack of gradient softening is not only visually jarring, but can distort how information is presented and interpreted.

In 1786, William Playfair introduced colorful, statistical graphs to convey different categories in data visualizations, maps of the world are often presented with jarring colors vs. smooth ones.

Design guru Edward Tufte, whose online forum I recommend highly for ideas, demonstrated the power of gradients in his book, Seeing With Fresh Eyes.

Example of a jarringly colorful map. The mind focuses more on the colors of the map than on the information delivered by the map.

Consider what is implied (even if unconsciously) in a map with jarring, non-harmonious colors demarcating national borders. It’s difficult to even focus on the information! Now contrast that with a harmoniously-colored, gradient softened map:

Example of a more nuanced, harmoniously-colored map. Now the brain is able to more quickly understand landmass elevation and depth.

With the colors made visually appealing, less cognitive energy is spent on processing the map, and more is spent on the map details themselves.

As a design approach, we can even apply a gradient softening approach to analog products:

  • Smart home routines could slowly wake up residents with gradually brightening lights and quieter alarm tones.
  • Home lighting systems could slowly dim and change temperature in the evenings to ease the transition to nighttime rather than harshly flipping off.
  • Device indicators could shift colors gradually throughout the day from cool to warm hues to match natural daylight.

Just as gradients convey whispering, a choice of visual cues and even material textures can convey etiquette:

“Inform, don’t alarm” in terms of audio/visual cues and textures design elements

Mui Board — a device with lights appearing under a surface of very thin wood, allowing a home electronic to become a comfortable and harmonious part of the home environment without visually distracting from it. Credit: Kyoto’s Mui Lab.

Visual displays should be clear and easily readable without being distracting or overstimulating; the material textures of the product should also follow suit. Here’s some illustrative guidelines:

  • Avoid quickly flashing lights or intensely bright screens.
  • Visual alerts can appear smoothly and subtly, not taking over the whole display. Allow users to customize colors, sizes, and styles.
  • Audio alerts can be pleasant but not startling. Choose soft chimes or gentle tones. Allow users to control volume.
  • Tactile surfaces can be smooth, comfortable, and responsive where appropriate. Avoid sharp corners or uneven textures.
  • Exteriors can feel smooth, lightweight, and comfortably grip-able, without sharp edges or heavy, cumbersome materials. Natural textures and patterns can be used strategically to resonate emotionally.

Most of these design principles, I should add, are not commonly used in most popular apps. The overarching challenge is that most tech companies are organized around a revenue model that requires constant attention, engagement, and “hot” emotions — the very opposite of etiquette. But it does not have to be this way.

Building Revenue Models Around Etiquette

It’s astounding to consider just how much contemporary UI design has been shaped not for the consumer’s needs but to optimize apps for advertisers.

But the “if you’re not the customer, you’re the product” revenue model is not the only one — and certainly not the most stable or reliable framework for running a business. Many tech companies, especially startups, have a short term mindset and don’t realize people will buy beloved products.

It’s often said that Apple is among the most profitable and beloved technology companies in history due to its well-designed products, but that’s only part of the story. While its App Store does carry third party apps rife with rude distracting UX, Apple’s actual devices are generally designed with etiquette principles first and foremost in mind.

SleepCycle an alarm clock and tracker that analyzes patterns and wakes you up in your lightest sleep phase. Starting the wakeup process when the user has finished a deep sleep cycle, allowing for less jarring wake ups.

Respect for privacy and discretion, a core etiquette rule, is mainly enforced throughout the iPhone user experience — even if that means alienating a top tech company, or the FBI itself. The company also invested considerable time and money ensuring that iPhone owners can gracefully withdraw from having to see notifications, and that it’s architected to help optimize the owners’ time when not using the device — that is, while sleeping.

This is SPOT, a $74,500 bot from @bostondynamicsofficial. SPOT currently helps out in places where repetitive measuring needs to happen (in breweries) and in other spaces dangerous for humans (like nuclear power plants)! This bot is still dystopic, but is a lot more fun and friendlier than earlier models, a testament to their engagement human/robot interaction principles informed by human/animal interactions.

Taking inspiration from how humans and animals work alongside each other can be helpful! Boston Dynamic’s earlier robots struck fear in the minds of many, but a new approach, based on animal movements, created a new design methodology for robots that designed to work safely alongside people in difficult situations. When I asked a representative from Boston Dynamics at a conference last year, he told me that the new line of bots had a better response and more sales because of the deep dive into human/animal collaborative design principles.

To be sure, not all tech giants need to adopt these patterns, and some popular apps may always need to rely on advertising revenue. But certainly any device that wants to become roommates with us in our home — Sonos, Bose, Starlink, Alexa, SmartThings, fridges, washing machines. anything that we expect to function in a certain way — must be designed around an expectation of etiquette.

If we want technology to act alongside us, instead of controlling us, we must design our systems with a sense of social grace and softer gradients. Etiquette in tech re-establishes humans as being at the forefront — the designers of our lives, rather than interruptive yelping distractions. The whole point of technology, to begin with, was to give us more human time, not less.

Beyond the expectations of etiquette, teaching tech manners grants us greater agency over our time and attention. It allows us to set boundaries and thoughtfully direct our focus rather than being whiplashed between screens and stimuli.

Polite technology is respectful technology — it follows our lead rather than demanding we follow its own.

Amber Case writes on Medium. You can find her @caseorganic, caseorganic.com, and at calmtech.com.

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Amber Case

Design advocate, founder of the Calm Technology Institute, speaker and author of Calm Technology. Former Research Fellow at MIT Media Lab and Harvard BKC.