Notifications are eating our brains. They raise our cortisol levels, hurt our ability to focus, and crush our productivity. And despite efforts from major technology companies to quiet the noise, most of us are still relentlessly nagged by our devices. The average U.S. smartphone user gets 46 push notifications a day.
Google’s Seed Studio, which develops concepts for the company’s consumer electronics, has partnered with the U.K. design studio Map Project Office to come up with whimsical alternatives. The six experimental devices you see here are called Little Signals. Resembling playful smart speakers, they use subtle cues—a light tap on the table, a sonorous melody, even a puff of air—to notify users of important information without triggering a frantic startle reflex. “Each concept captures attention, but gently and momentarily,” says Zoe Schladow, design strategist at Google Seed Studio.
The project drew inspiration from Calm Technology, an idea articulated in an influential 1995 essay by Xerox PARC researchers Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown that called for seamlessly integrating technology into users’ lives. Weiser and Brown believed that technology isn’t inherently distracting; it’s simply poorly designed. “There is no less technology involved in a comfortable pair of shoes, in a fine writing pen, or in delivering the New York Times on a Sunday morning than in a home PC,” they wrote. “Why is one often enraging, the others frequently encalming? We believe the difference is in how they engage our attention.”
Little Signals engages its users in unusual, often clever, ways. The Shadow device casts shadows on a surface, shaking, stretching, and rotating to convey different messages. The Air device, meanwhile, turns household objects into custom push notifications as pulses of air rustle your surroundings, like the leaves of a plant. “Objects and devices typically draw attention to themselves, so we wanted to play with the idea of drawing attention to the surroundings instead,” Schladow says. “Getting someone’s attention can take them out of the moment, but with the Air concept, we try to strike a balance and explore the softest ways to signal.”
Rustling leaves might be too subtle a signal for some (and what if there’s nothing close by to be rustled?). But it hints at one of the biggest problems Little Signals grapples with: how to convey different types of information. Notifications are dumb. They bombard you in the same manner, whether you’re getting an emergency message from your spouse or a spammy offer to lower your car insurance. Then you’re forced to expend precious mental energy sorting through them all.
Cues that help you understand varying degrees of urgency can lighten the mental load. The Rhythm device, for example, uses an evolving melody to convey qualitative information. A full, serious melody suggests pressing information; a light melody reassures you that everything is fine and you don’t need to check your messages. “Instead of treating notifications as there or not there, it’s an opportunity to place them on a scale and impart a little more meaning,” Schladow says.
Will any of these interactions make their way into Google’s products? The designers declined to say (“currently, this is just an experiment,” a Map spokesperson says), but Google hasn’t been shy about its ambitions to infiltrate nearly every aspect of your life through ambient computing. The company has a vested interest in keeping users connected without alienating them. That could mean radically overhauling notifications and making them feel, quite literally, like a breath of fresh air.