Short, Shallow, and Sexy: Casual Computing

Designing for "casual computing" should emphasize user-friendly, efficient interfaces in our interconnected world, promoting effortless interactions.

[This article is adapted from a talk given by Nathan Moody, Stimulant's design director, at UX Week 2013.]

We are surrounded by needful objects. They clamor for our attention, and our input, active or passive, is needed to inform and populate their understanding of our needs and desires. How deeply we interact with our devices, and how often, is emerging as a future issue in a world of interconnected things. Since our work involves spaces that sense and react to human presence and activity, we’re now seeing buildings and structures joining the Internet of Things, adding to the number of digital touchpoints in our daily lives. To this end, human-computer interfaces need to be even more frictionless, streamlined, and integrated with our lives in order to be adopted in a crowded marketplace. The more interactions we have with the objects, devices, and architectural spaces around us, the more we need short, relevant, efficient, and meaningful interactions that gets things done effortlessly. In a word: casual. ”Casual computing” describes richly impactful interactive experiences that don’t ask that much of the visitor or user. However, we don’t use word “casual” to mean pedestrian, cheap, or downmarket. The more casual something is…

...the less someone will be self-conscious of doing it. It builds comfort and confidence....the less investment (in time and attention) the user needs to make to engage with it. It rewards attention, no matter how brief....the more likely someone will be comfortable doing it, and the more it disappears into the fabric of our daily habits and actions. It drives adoption.

Creating a casual computing experience is the art of minimizing the amount and complexity of user input, and maximizing the impact or value of the system’s response and the messages it conveys. To put it more simply, it’s about delivering a lot without asking that much.

Principles of Casual Computing

Stimulant creates smart spaces that facilitate insightful experiences for humans in those spaces. We battle with user distraction, integration with architecture and interior design, and all sorts of other factors that has shown, time and again, that keeping technological interactions casual - low friction and high impact - puts users at ease and increases frequency of interaction.What are the best attributes of a casual digital experience?


Be as concise as possible in duration without losing impact. People often have multiple goals in mind, and our goal with interactivity should be to enhance these goals and activities, not to distract from them. Of course, the more open-ended a digital experience is, the longer a user could interact with it, but we ensure that payoffs are as immediate as possible while still conveying brand values and critical information. People aren’t going to pull up a bean bag chair and read Wikipedia articles in your booth or event space. People need to expend the smallest amount of effort possible, but be delivered emotionally or intellectually stunning results.


Deep experiences are not always necessary to convey a value proposition, brand attribute, or key message. The content or experience itself can be deep and rich...but only in a way that encourages deeper exploration. The briefest of interactions must be meaningful but should lead to longer engagement if the user has the time. This helps keep visitor attention moving throughout the space, better leveraging investments in architecture, interior design, booth staff, and other assets. This lessens the visitor’s cognitive burden and prevents sensory overload, especially at the end of a long day at a massive tradeshow or in a crowded space, allowing them to have enough emotional energy to engage with the brand.


Just because an experience is perhaps simple to use and takes only a moment doesn’t mean that it should be short-changed in terms of the smallest interaction details, motion design, sound, and technical details. High-performance graphics, lightning-fast responses to user input, and gorgeous and unexpected form factors all help to make these interactions have almost a casual sensibility, but without feeling anything less than ultra-premium.Design to exceed lowest common expectation, not to satisfy the lowest common denominator.

User Attention is a Gift

In our work at Stimulant, we deal with place-based experiences in physical spaces, so we need to create experiences that can captivate and engage in busy, chaotic environments like trade shows, or in “third places” like public gathering places, lobbies, or bars. Even the modern home is filled with computing devices and other media, making them places of distraction in their own right.Given that humans are busy, distractible creatures, and we think that the most valuable thing a user can do is to give their time and focus. It’s a gift that we should all honor and respect. If we think of attention as a precious resource, maybe we will be more sensitive to squandering it, therefore having this influence the design decisions we make.If the user’s attention represents an investment of curiosity and intent in a digital experience, perhaps this way of thinking may keep us more honest about whether or not the user is getting a good ROA: Return on Attention. The more casual the interaction, the less effort expended, yet the value or information conveyed belies

Not Everything Should Be Casual

Some experiences can be trivialized if too casual an approach is taken. Getting to know your local shopkeeper takes emotional investment and time -- not much, but more than many are willing to invest -- and the payoff manifests over months and years of that relationship. Deeply immersive games, even if their mechanics are simple and casual, make people want to dwell in the worlds, puzzles, and challenges such experiences can provide.Casual computing is at its best when many small interactions over time add up to a larger impact. This could be hundreds of uses of one bank’s ATM that remembers your favorite actions, or a brief digital experience that occurs between the interaction of a visitor entering a building and then being greeted and hosted by an employee. If deeper, longer interactions are needed to convey a narrative, idea, or brand experience, then go for “stickiness” and immersion. No approach is better than the other: It’s all dependent on context of use, context of need, and what needs to be communicated to whom.

A Casual Tomorrow

At Stimulant, we have entertaining and vexing dialogues around many of these issues. How deep does this experience need to go? How much does a user need to invest, in terms of emotion and attention, to derive value from the experience? How much value, information, or insight can we deliver for the least amount of interaction?We think that these kinds of questions should not just be asked by makers of interactive installations, but of websites, mobile apps, and software applications. Can we get users to have deep relationships with brands, ideas, and each other through repeated, shallow experiences? Can we provide a lot while asking for little? Our experience, time and again, is an emphatic yes.Let’s all redouble our efforts to strive for effortless, for frictionless, for casual. Invisibly integrating with the lives of our users might just be the best way for a brand or product to stand out.