CEO Adviser: Is Anyone Listening?

Without calm design, marketing is just contributing to the noise.

Customers are responding to increasingly aggressive marketing tactics by covering their ears. One in five smartphone users utilizes ad-blocking technology. And that’s just a warmup act. If marketing is a nuisance now, imagine how customers will feel by 2020, once the Internet of Things (IoT) is populated by an estimated 50 billion connected devices.

Customer attention is already a scarce resource, and marketers who contribute to the growing noise risk extinction.

To survive, marketing must evolve away from interruptive strategies and embrace calm design. Calm design uses peripheral awareness to communicate without trying to commandeer all of the user’s attention. Instead of text popping up on a screen, think indicator lights, audio tones and haptics — distinct but unintrusive — not attempting to grab more attention than what is necessary to inform. 

Pioneered in the tech world by John Seely Brown and Mark Weiser in the Xerox PARC glory days of the mid-90s, calm design has actually been essential in product design for centuries. Think of a teakettle. Set it, forget it and you’ll hear when its task is complete. That’s calm design.

Why is calm design necessary? Consider how much peripheral awareness is involved in driving a car. Speed? AC? Music? Exit? Lights? So many Teslas on 405! Safe to change lanes? Wipers? A ton of information, yet we retain control. Now add a text to the mix and there’s immediate danger. Why? Because texting requires too much of our attention to safely do it while driving. 

Customers already live in a state of constant distraction, so when everything in our world is connected, constant updates and notifications will become toxic. That’s why marketing must disappear to remain effective. 

This is an opportunity to stop relying on clever or ham-fisted interruptions and, instead, create more relevance, value and satisfaction for customers without amplifying the noise. It’s also a path to ensuring sustainable, scalable ROI for marketers. And it might just save us from going the way of the dinosaurs. 

I’m not proposing subliminal marketing — nothing hidden, absurd or creepy. To the contrary, the IoT will ideally be an extinction-level event for bad marketing. With calm design fueling a new approach in marketing — the atmospheric approach — we can attract without distracting, inform without interrupting and engage without interfering. 

Nowhere is the opportunity more immediate and real than with Echo, Amazon’s hands-free, voice-enabled wireless speaker connected to the Alexa voice service. Alexa is an approachable and skilled assistant. And with sales already surpassing 3 million, Echo has positioned Amazon as the pacesetter in Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s vision of “conversations as a platform.”

For now, Alexa listens and responds. Her warmth and usefulness will grow exponentially as developers create more skills for her. The next big step will be for Alexa to start conversations instead of waiting quietly to be addressed. This is a perfect example of where calm design and the atmospheric approach will thrive. People may not want Alexa striking up conversations the moment they walk in the door. But if your foyer lights are a certain hue or there’s an audio signature playing, you’ll know Alexa has something to say. She’s not interrupting, but using ambient tactics to make you aware there’s something you may want to attend to. You can choose to hear the message and take action — or not. That’s the atmospheric approach to marketing in action. 

The marketing implications of Alexa and the IoT cannot be overstated. Brands can now have one-to-one customer interactions that are actual conversations. And marketers can optimize customer interactions by consuming and learning from ridiculously vast amounts of real-time behavioral data.

But with opportunity comes risk. If these conversations are intrusive, irrelevant or annoying, customers will tune out, turn off and ignore. 

In the IoT, marketing will see a boom of opportunities. Rejecting interruptive tactics and using the atmospheric approach to fuel relevant, engaging and valuable interactions can help ensure the IoT boom doesn’t make marketing go bust. 

Haydn Sweterlitsch is global chief creative officer at HackerAgency in Seattle. Reach him at

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