social & community · user experience

What we need, right, is a big volume control for Ambient Intimacy

If you’re designing a social application at the moment, think about how you can be quiet.

This is just one of a million pleas from socially networked people everywhere who are going to great efforts to manage the noise that their networked applications are generating at times when they really need some quiet time to focus.

Some systems (ahem, FaceBook) can be VERY noisy and make the process of quietening more difficult than it needs to be.

Facebook Notifications

Others seem simpler, but the lack of ‘friends management’ tools mean that you can be a lot noisier than perhaps you’d like to be.


But – perhaps the biggest challenge of all is that there are soooo many different systems we need to dial down – just when you think you’ve got them all, something else sneaks through to interrupt you.

Imagine if there was one panel somewhere that all of your noisy applications could hook into and then a big volume control that you can adjust based on how available you are to your network. (Is there some kind of a microformat we can make for this Jeremy?)

So when you’re super busy and you need to focus, you can, with minimal effort, dial down the noise to allow you to concentrate. And when you’re hanging out and are completely open to connections – dial it back up again.

Kind of like how you need different levels and types of ambient noise to match various activities in your day. (In my my presentation on Ambient Intimacy at Reboot I suggested an important challenge for ‘social designers’ was to think more about how to design for ambience in social applications).

In the meantime… until we get this great big volume control… let’s those of us who are designing social applications be thoughtful about this particular user requirement. Let’s make sure it’s easy for our users to quieten us down, and then pump us back up again.

Otherwise they’ll keep banging on about this attention scarcity thing even more and switch us off altogether.

6 thoughts on “What we need, right, is a big volume control for Ambient Intimacy

  1. I’m not sure that one great big volume control is always appropriate. It doesn’t pay attention to the contexts of how we use services.

    Eg: when I set my phone on silent, it doesn’t mean I don’t want any calls per se. Usually, it means I don’t want most calls – but if I see it flashing on my desk, and it’s my parents, or my girlfriend, I might make an exception and answer it. The rest of the time, it stops me being interrupted by hoi polloi.

    Similarly: I might set my IM to “busy” rather than “off”, so that people I actively want to listen to, or urgent requests, can break through that wall.

    With my social networks: I’ll gladly disable Facebook messaging as a first priority, but people on Twitter tend to be closer friends with more important or relevant things to say. To increase relevance – the signal to noise ratio – each network needs handling appropriately.

    So the big knob doesn’t actually reflect my behaviour accurately; I, like most people, use these services in a more subtle way. The big knob is only really of use for the extreme that is “mute all” – which is something I’d almost never do.

  2. If you’re using or some similarly smart email client, you just have to make a rule that sits at the top of your list of rules and marks all notification emails as read. Then you can turn this rule on when you want quiet and off again when you want more noise.

  3. Hey Tom… I’m not how you get straight to ‘mute all’ from a big knob… I was thinking the whole idea of the volume control was that it was more like a fader, where you can adjust the noisiness… not necessarily by switching things completely on or off… I’m thinking along the lines of what you said about restricting the circles of people who are allowed to ping you, as well as perhaps the intrusiveness of the pinging.

    Also – I think that these kinds of controls are maybe for people who don’t naturally ‘parse’ incoming information in the way that others do. I don’t think I’d use the ‘volume control’ much myself because I’m pretty good at managing incoming information and how much attention I pay to it.

    From discussions I’ve had, thought, there are a lot of people who don’t seem to be able to do this so easily and who feel threatened by the noisiness of social applications. I was actually thinking more of what we can do to make social apps more appetising for them. (I feel bad that they’re wholesale missing out!)

    @ Rich – yeah, that’s the kind of thing I’m thinking of I guess – but on top of that some kind of global control that can turn on your email rule, set your IM to busy, switch off Twitterific, etc. when you tell it you’re busy and can’t be disturbed – maybe with some rules about who in your social circle can break these rules, as per Tom’s comments above.

  4. Hey Leisa – I’m all over the analogue faders and user in control idea. When designing a service we often refer to a slice in time where this imaginary control desk of faders is set just so, (what they actually control is a whole different conversation) then move along in time, maybe to another touchpoint then the faders are in another configuration (have you seen ‘flying faders’ – they work on a mixing desk and ‘fly’ fading up and down in real time.

    The analogue nature is actually very important and we as humans communicate in subtle nuances, our moods are *degrees* of on and off, so a fader or dial rather than a switch please!

    And here’s the thing, without this degree of control there’s a risk of overload and the fuse blows.

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