Design principles for ambient UI

  • Not all UI events require the same level of urgency
  • Gradual adjustments of colour, size and position can be used to change ambience over time
  • Ambient UI events can help convey a larger overall volume of data without overloading the user

The number of digital touchpoints in users’ lives and the amount of time spent interacting with them is increasing. With this growth has come a sense of overload which at best risks lower user satisfaction and at worst creates anxiety and stress.

Ambient interfaces offer an alternative.

By aligning with natural rhythms, ambient interfaces ask only for the minimum user attention required to get the job done.

A metaphor from nature helps illuminate the principle: we all enjoy knowing when the seasons change, but their arrival is rarely announced with a single fanfare. Spring, for instance, is not established by one event, nor does it require us to remain focused on every moment of its unfolding. Instead, a subtle accumulation of sounds, sights, smells and feelings makes us aware the new season has arrived over a number of days, weeks or months.

Ambient UI approach for a countdown timer

In the digital environment, an example might be found in the presentation of a countdown timer. There are, of course, numerous techniques one could use to make it the permanent focus of the user’s attention: the size of the numerals, loud alerts or flashing colours. However, an ambient approach might conclude the remaining time is initially unimportant but becomes increasingly deserving of user attention. Therefore, the numerals could grow over time, occupying a small area of the screen at first and becoming large and central in the final moments. Similarly, if the user switched away from the timer to another app, it might maintain an ambient border glow, changing from green to orange to red as the timer approached its conclusion in the background.

MEX Pathway #13, entitled ‘Quiet design‘, is our ongoing exploration of this theme, initiated in July 2011.

The principle, part of an emerging series in the MEX journal, is summarised below in a tweetable, shareable graphic. Thank you for citing appropriately.

MEX Principle: Leverage changes in UI ambience to convey non-urgent information

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