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Abstract

A wealth of evidence suggests that love, closeness, and intimacy—in short relatedness—are important for people’s psychological well-being. Nowadays, however, couples are often forced to live apart. Accordingly, there has been a growing and flourishing interest in designing technologies that mediate (and create) a feeling of relatedness when being separated, beyond the explicit verbal communication and simple emoticons available technologies offer. This article provides a review of 143 published artifacts (i.e., design concepts, technologies). Based on this, we present six strategies used by designers/researchers to create a relatedness experience: Awareness, expressivity, physicalness, gift giving, joint action, and memories. We understand those strategies as starting points for the experience-oriented design of technology.
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All You Need is Love: Current Strategies of Mediating Intimate
Relationships through Technology
MARC HASSENZAHL, STEPHANIE HEIDECKER, KAI ECKOLDT,
and SARAH DIEFENBACH, Folkwang University of the Arts
UWE HILLMANN, Telekom Innovation Laboratories
A wealth of evidence suggests that love, closeness, and intimacy—in short relatedness—are important for
people’s psychological well-being. Nowadays, however, couples are often forced to live apart. Accordingly,
there has been a growing and flourishing interest in designing technologies that mediate (and create) a
feeling of relatedness when being separated, beyond the explicit verbal communication and simple emoticons
available technologies offer. This article provides a review of 143 published artifacts (i.e., design concepts,
technologies). Based on this, we present six strategies used by designers/researchers to create a relatedness
experience: Awareness, expressivity, physicalness, gift giving, joint action, and memories. We understand
those strategies as starting points for the experience-oriented design of technology.
Categories and Subject Descriptors: H.5.m [Information Interfaces and Presentation]: Miscellaneous
General Terms: Design, Human Factors, Theory
Additional Key Words and Phrases: Experience design, emotional communication, intimate relationships,
relatedness, interaction design, review, long-distance relationships
ACM Reference Format:
Hassenzahl, M., Heidecker, S., Eckoldt, K., Diefenbach, S., and Hillmann, U. 2012. All you need is love:
Current strategies of mediating intimate relationships through technology. ACM Trans. Comput.-Hum.
Interact. 19, 4, Article 30 (December 2012), 19 pages.
DOI = 10.1145/2395131.2395137 http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/2395131.2395137
1. INTRODUCTION
The Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” concisely summarizes at least 60 years of psycho-
logical research into human well-being. Love and the general feeling of being related
to significant others are crucial to people’s life satisfaction and happiness (e.g., Argyle
[1987], Berscheid and Peplau [1983], Campbell et al. [1976], Freedman [1978], Miesen
and Schaafsma [2008], Myers [1999]). Consequently, “relatedness” is a part of many
psychological theories of human needs. For example, Maslow’s Theory of Personality
[Maslow 1954] quotes “love-belongingness” as one of five fundamental needs, Epstein’s
Cognitive-Experiential Self Theory [Epstein 1990] considers “relatedness” as one of
four essential needs, and Ryan and Deci’s contemporary Self-Determination Theory
[Ryan and Deci 2000] even places “relatedness” among the top three of human needs.
Sheldon et al. [2001, p. 339] conceptually defined fulfilled relatedness as the “feeling
that you have regular intimate contact with people who care about you rather than
Authors’ addresses: M. Hassenzahl, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen; email:
marc.hassenzahl@folkwang-uni.de; S. Heidecker, K. Eckoldt, and S. Diefenbach, Experience Design,
Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen; U. Hillmann, Telekom Innovation Laboratories, Berlin.
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DOI 10.1145/2395131.2395137 http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/2395131.2395137
ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction, Vol. 19, No. 4, Article 30, Publication date: December 2012.
30:2 M. Hassenzahl et al.
feeling lonely and uncared for”. Hassenzahl [2010] argued and demonstrated that the
fulfillment of psychological needs, such as relatedness, is at the heart of positive ex-
periences with technology and other artifacts [Gaver and Martin 2000; Hassenzahl
et al. 2010; Jordan 2000; Partala and Kallinen 2012]. As long as we embed the present
work into the larger endeavor of the experience-oriented design of technology or Ex-
perience Design (e.g., McCarthy and Wright [2004], Hassenzahl [2010, 2011]), we use
relatedness as a theoretically rich and sufficiently broad label to subsume the diverse
terms used throughout the literature, such as connectedness, intimacy, love, belonging,
closeness, or togetherness.
While fulfilling the need for relatedness is of prime importance to humans, cur-
rent developments in lifestyle often render this a challenge. The pressure of the job
market and globalization forces employees to travel constantly and even to live apart
from their loved ones. The consequence is an increasing number of long-distance re-
lationships. According to the Center for the Study of Long Distance Relationships1
approximately 3.6 million married U.S. Americans were involved in a long-distance
relationship in 2006 and the rate of long-distance marriages between 2000 and 2005
increased about 23%. There were an estimated 4 to 4.5 million U.S. college couples
in a long-distance relationship in 2005. Thus, premarital and dating couples, espe-
cially students, are even more prone to be in a long-distance relationship [Stafford
and Reske 1990]. Even though long-distance relationships are as likely to endure as
proximal relationships [Guldner 1996], they suffer from particular drawbacks. Part-
ners, for example, regularly struggle with feelings of loneliness ([Magnuson and Norem
1999]; for a review see Rhodes [2002]). In order to cope with this situation, geograph-
ically separated couples make use of several possibilities to ensure the continuity of
their relationship [Sigman 1991]. Couples use constructional artifacts (e.g., wedding
rings, clothing, pictures, and ornaments) as reminders of the existence of the rela-
tionship and/or as signals to others. They express their commitment by talking with
others about their relationship during separation. Finally, most couples stay connected
through technology, such as the telephone (see Stafford [2005] for a helpful overview).
Most available technologies however focus on the transmission of explicit infor-
mation, which neglects the emotional and subtle communication so typical for close
relationships. This becomes apparent, for example, in interesting (mis-)uses of the
telephone. In Italy people engage in a social practice called the squillo [Knobel et al.
2012].2A friend calls another and lets it ring only once to send a little “I think of you,”
a token of affection and act of emotional expressivity rather than an explicit act of ver-
bal communication. However, the telephone itself is not built for this. The squillo is,
thus, rather a product of people’s inventiveness to fulfill their needs even in the face of
“inappropriate” technological solutions.
This is not an exclusive problem of the telephone. Even more recent technologies,
such as videoconferencing, do not explicitly consider emotional, expressive nonverbal
information as a main purpose of a communication act. While video conferencing has
the advantage of allowing for nonverbal cues, field studies (e.g., Ames et al. [2010])
show that video is merely treated as a “technical feature.” It remains left to people to
appropriate the feature, that is, to make it work as a social practice. A recent study by
Neustaedter and Greenberg [2012] of video conferencing among long-distance couples
demonstrated the richness of invented practices and the resulting experiences. In
other words, the telephone and the widely available video conferencing systems such
as Skype are built with functionality in mind (i.e., transmitting sound and video), not
1http://www.longdistancerelationships.net
2http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Missed call
ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction, Vol. 19, No. 4, Article 30, Publication date: December 2012.
Current Strategies of Mediating Intimate Relationships through Technology 30:3
with the feeling and experience to provide. They may be used to achieve relatedness,
but they are not built primarily with relatedness in mind.
Fortunately, research in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), Experience Design,
and Interaction Design acknowledges this problem. There has been—and still is—a
growing and flourishing interest in designing technologies aimed at mediating (and
creating) a feeling of relatedness (i.e., connectedness, intimacy, love, belonging, close-
ness, or togetherness) in romantic (and other) close relationships beyond explicit verbal
communication and simple emoticons.
The main objective of this article is to provide an overview of this work. Based on
143 published artifacts from the HCI and Interaction Design domain, we identified six
strategies of how designers attempt to explicitly create the experience of relatedness
through technological artifacts. The article is meant as a starting point for readers,
planning to design for relatedness. The Online Appendix lists the 143 artifacts, each
with a short description, and a picture if available. While this repository of design
ideas is of inspirational value in itself, it further supports putting new design ideas
into a “historical” context. Just like a review of theories or empirical phenomena, this
avoids reinventing the wheel and forces designers to more explicitly express how their
new design advances what had been done before. In addition, we supply further ex-
emplary references to psychological and HCI-related literature for each strategy as
an inspiration to further ground new artifacts in relevant theory. All in all, the arti-
cle is a tool for getting started with designing technological artifacts for creating and
mediating relatedness based on what already exists in this domain.
The focus on reviewing artifacts rather than theories or studies has two additional
implications. First, we get an overview of the strategies used and underused in de-
signing relatedness experiences. Obviously, the artifacts embody and, thus, mirror
available theoretical notions and empirical findings. There is nevertheless some addi-
tional value in creating a collection of strategies based on what is there (i.e., published
artifacts) rather than what could be (i.e., published theories, visions, or context stud-
ies). At least, we can make sure that the vocabulary used to talk about the artifacts
is one that is derived from and fits what is in the world. Second, focusing on artifacts
allows for a brief review of the actual practice of designing for relatedness in terms of
approaches, theories and processes.
We present six common strategies regularly found in existing technological arti-
facts for relatedness. Each strategy is described, examples are provided, and further
exemplary psychological literature is added. In addition, we take a brief look at the
theories and methods used by designers/researchers. Based on this, we recommend to
turn more to already existing knowledge as inspiration and to consider analytical and
critical approaches as an alternative or in addition to empirical evaluation.
2. STRATEGIES FOR RELATEDNESS
Our summarizing review of artifacts (i.e., concepts, objects, technologies) focused
on relevant work published in the Association for Computing Machinery Digital
Library3until end of 2009. We included all artifacts broadly addressing the medi-
ation of intimate relationships by using the following search criteria: “intimacy,”
“romantic,” “non-verbal communication,” “emotional communication,” “remote pres-
ence,” “presence-in-absence,” “romantic communication.” We focused on artifacts that
addressed the mediation of existing close relationships, primarily romantic couples
and family members (e.g., cross-generational) (for informative overviews of research
on close relationships see Regan [2011], Reis and Rusbult [2004], and Noller and
3http://portal.acm.org
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30:4 M. Hassenzahl et al.
Feeney [2006]). As long as the focus was on technology, this unavoidably touched on
the problem of long-distance relationships as already discussed in the introduction
[Stafford 2005]. We explicitly excluded artifacts designed for “communication” among
strangers, colleagues, or rather remote acquaintances in the context of social network-
ing. Consequently, the strategies we will describe are closely tied to the experience of
relatedness among close couples and family members.
In total, we reviewed 92 publications containing 143 artifacts (see Electronic Ap-
pendix for a full list). We examined core elements and characteristics of the artifacts
and clustered them according to similarities. Overall, we identified six broad strategies
to create and mediate the feeling of relatedness: awareness,expressivity,physicalness,
gift giving,joint action,andmemories. Table I provides an overview.
Note that an artifact could potentially rely on any number and combination of those
strategies. For example, artifacts based on physicalness often support expressivity
as well. We nevertheless attempted to identify the single, most central strategy per
artifact to get an idea of the distribution of the strategies. A large group of artifacts
(39%, 56 of 143) addressed relatedness primarily by creating mutual awareness. The
second group relied on expressivity (29%, 42 of 143). Thirteen percent (18 of 143) of
the artifacts were based on physicalness, 8% (11 of 143) addressed gift giving, further
8% (12 of 143) addressed joint action, and only 3% (4 of 143) were based on (the re-
experience of mutual) memories. Note that the six strategies are not exhaustive of
relatedness. They simply capture the different approaches to designing for relatedness
taken so far. Further note that our aim was not to fixedly categorize each artifact,
but to map out and better understand the current state of strategies for designing
relatedness experiences.
In the following, we discuss each strategy: We first describe the broad strategy
addressed by the artifacts, and, when needed, further present clearly identifiably sub-
strategies. Next, we exemplify each strategy by describing one or two exemplary ar-
tifacts. Finally, we provide references to relevant psychological principles as well as
consequential key requirements and potential challenges for design, if possible.
2.1 Awareness
Awareness is the “state of knowing about the environment in which you exist; about
your surroundings, and the presence and activities of others” [Wisneski et al. 1998,
p. 24]. Strong and Gaver [1996] were among the first who placed emphasis on convey-
ing awareness within the social and domestic context. Their work has inspired and
motivated many designers to develop communication devices that support individuals
in maintaining awareness of their loved ones. In general, “ambient” design [Dunne
and Raby 1994; Ishii and Ullmer 1997; Wisneski et al. 1998], which aims at a rather
peripheral, implicit experience, is closely related to awareness. As “peripheral” im-
plies, those artifacts are designed in a way that they do not demand primary attention
and are unobtrusive. Consequently, they fit into daily routines and activities without
causing much disruption, neither for the receiver nor for the sender. This is in contrast
to explicit, conversation-based technologies, such as the telephone.
Many concepts addressing awareness draw upon forms of implicit communica-
tion. To give an example, imagine that you are sitting at your desk in the living room,
while your spouse is playing with the children in the back yard. You oversee the back
yard. You hear your loved ones laughing and giggling. This can create a feeling of
relatedness, without direct communication and without the need to interrupt your
current activity. Awareness devices enable the exchange of continuous implicit infor-
mation (such as children’s laughter) to create a feeling of relatedness. We may further
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Current Strategies of Mediating Intimate Relationships through Technology 30:5
Table I. Strategies
Facet Description
Awareness
Artifacts that create a feeling of cognitive awareness and continuity by
sharing different types of (ambient) information about current activities or
moods among partners (without a conversation or doing anything together).
Substrategies: Display of presence, activity, or mood
Psychological principles and key requirements for design: reciprocal
self-disclosure, ambiguity, counteraction against idealization
Expressivity
Artifacts that emphasize the affective and emotional aspect of intimacy.
They enable partners to express their feelings and emotions in a wide vari-
ety of ways, such as developing an own language or to use language in an
ambiguous way.
Substrategies: on-off, symbol
Psychological principles and key requirements for design: enriched expres-
sion of emotions, reciprocity, integration in daily routines, open to interpre-
tation, phatic communication
Physicalness
Artifacts that mediate a feeling of physical intimacy. They simulate either
secondary effects of physical proximity (e.g., body heat, heartbeat) or mean-
ingful gestures (e.g., hugs, strokes).
Subcategories: Physiological parameters, gestures
Psychological principles and key requirements for design: Reciprocity,
simultaneity, contextual constraints
Gift Giving
Artifacts that demonstrate caring and valuing the other person by gift
giving.
Psychological principles and key requirements for design: Reflection, effort
and appreciation, thoughtfulness and similarity, symbolic communication
Joint Action
Artifacts that allow for carrying out an action together, which usually
requires being physically colocated.
Substrategies: Established routines, new routines
Psychological principles and key requirements for design: Activating com-
munication, behavioral interdependence, selection of activities, serendipity
Artifacts that keep records of past activities and special moments of a
relationship.
Psychological principles and key requirements for design: Memorabilia,
commitment, tangibility
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30:6 M. Hassenzahl et al.
differentiate between three different types of “information” transmitted: presence,ac-
tivity,andmood.
At first glance, the substrategy presence is similar to the availability status fea-
ture of common instant messenger services. However, according artifacts often go a
step further, which make them especially meaningful and significant for close rela-
tionships. First, the artifacts do not enable users to directly communicate with each
other, but convey only presence. Second, the functionality of transmitting presence is
often built into everyday physical objects, such as picture frames, mirrors, or chairs.
This aspect reflects upon habitual, social and domestic use, rather than the use at the
workplace. Third, contrary to common instant messenger services, most artifacts are
restricted to a single other person or only a small group of people (e.g., family). For
example, Dey and De Guzman [2006] developed a series of presence display concepts
(e.g., PictureFrame,AugmentedMirror), which incorporated all these aspects.
The substrategy activity attempts to create a sense of shared knowledge about mun-
dane daily routines without explicitly asking for this type of information. The majority
of artifacts using this strategy display current events. Some also focus on past or fu-
ture activities. The major aim of exchanging information about future activities is to
synchronize each other’s schedule. Sharing information about past mundane activities
will help to recognize any change from regular patterns that can be of importance,
for instance, well-being of (grand)parents (e.g., Digital Family Portrait, [Mynatt et al.
2001]). The artifacts vary in the level of shared information and this information is
often further transformed. For example, Anemo [Ogawa et al. 2005] consists of two de-
vices, which detect sounds within a room and trigger a remote propeller to spin faster
with increasing loudness. The activity is transmitted in a diffuse and fuzzy way. An-
other set of artifacts enables one-to-one transmission, either of a specific activity or
activity in general. For example, SyncDecor [Tsujita et al. 2007] synchronizes pairs of
daily appliances, such as desk lights, trash boxes, and TV sets, typically tied to spe-
cific activities (e.g., switching the desk light on implies work). Furthermore, there are
artifacts, such as MissU [Lottridge et al. 2009], which enable two physically separated
individuals not only to share music but also the ambient sound of the remote location.
Finally, the substrategy mood is to provide information about the emotional state
(e.g., happy, sad, bored) of a partner by interpreting body language, physiological pa-
rameters, or external indicators (e.g., music). In contrast to a phone call, the sender
does not consciously reflect his/her emotional state.
From a psychological point of view, the exchange of seemingly trivial “information”
about mundane day-to-day events is crucial to the feeling of being involved in the
loved one’s life (see also the strategy of “joint action”) [Guldner 2003]. That this can be
technologically mediated was shown by Dey and De Guzman [2006]. They conducted a
five-week field study with their presence displays. Participants were significantly more
aware of their loved one’s status and experienced increased feelings of awareness and
connectedness.
Being aware of the significant other’s mundane life counteracts the idealization of
the partner, which is a common problem in long-distance relationships [Stafford and
Merolla 2007]. The unrealistically positive, idealized view of the partner stems from
the restricted interaction of couples in long-distance relationships. In addition, when
being together, partners tend to avoid discomfort and conflict [Sahlstein 2004]. How-
ever, a more realistic perception is important for a successful relationship in the long
run [Showers and Zeigler-Hill 2004]: an aspect supported by awareness devices.
An important precondition for creating relatedness through such devices is self-
disclosure. While self-disclosure is at the heart of relatedness, it is also associated
with feelings of controllability and vulnerability from each individual’s perspective.
Consequently, couples do not disclose personal information right from the beginning
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Current Strategies of Mediating Intimate Relationships through Technology 30:7
of a relationship, but rather reveal themselves over time [Reiss 1960]. Lottridge et al.
[2009], for example, found that only couples actually living together acknowledged
background noises of the loved one’s environment. For couples, who did not live to-
gether, sharing sounds without verbalizations appeared intrusive and strange. An-
other example is a finding by Neustaedter et al. [2006]. Individuals had a strong need
to maintain awareness for loved ones and at the same time experienced a duty to be
available for intimate people (i.e., reciprocity). Depending on how close people already
feel, they are willing to share more or less details, more or less often. On one hand, this
demonstrates the necessity of an appropriate analysis of a couple’s need for awareness.
On the other hand, forcing a certain level of awareness upon couples through a device
could possibly lead to a stronger experience of relatedness.
Awareness is the most comprehensive strategy. Several design principles (e.g., Dey
and De Guzman [2006]) have been already suggested. The major principle is ambi-
guity [Gaver et al. 2003]. Providing information in an ambiguous way requires the
‘user’ to make meaning of this information, and, in the case of awareness devices, also
takes into account privacy and autonomy concerns of each individual [Lottridge et al.
2009]. Thus, the great advantage of ambiguity is that it diminishes the feeling of being
monitored, which is inherent to most approaches to creating awareness.
2.2 Expressivity
Expressivity supports the explicit expression and reflection of emotions, feelings, and
affections, in an encoded or enriched way. It incorporates spontaneous, stimulating
and playful communicative acts, which sometimes take place in either a synchronous
or asynchronous way. Similar to awareness, this expressivity comprises a variety of
different strategies, which can be subdivided into on-off and symbols.
The first substrategy, on-off, consists of artifacts that transmit simple on-off signals
only. They assume that a minimal amount of information is sufficient to express affec-
tion. For example, Virtual Intimate Object [Kaye 2006] is a small disc in the computer’s
taskbar, which is connected to the partner’s disc. When clicking on one disc, the part-
ner’s disc changes to bright red. The color then fades slowly over time. Kaye [2006]
showed that such a simple mechanism can be sufficient to express mutual affection.
Another example is ComTouch [Chang et al. 2002]. This mobile phone has extra but-
tons on the side and back. Pressure sensors enable users to squeeze the phone. The
touch pressure under each finger is mapped to the intensity of vibration of the other
phone. This allows for an immediate, simple, codified exchange of affection.
The substrategy symbols invites variety in messaging. In contrast to currently avail-
able technologies, which provide only limited customization for emotional messaging
through, for example, emoticons, the majority of the symbols concepts encourage cou-
ples to develop their own emotional language. For example, the Cube [Garnæs et al.
2007] is a virtual three-dimensional cube for couples to compose and send symbolic
messages. To compose a message, users can either select from an existing pool of sym-
bols or create new symbols. This approach is based on the idea that couples tend to
create an idiosyncratic universe with a “secret” language, with rules only known to
the respective partners. This excludes the rest of the world and, thus, creates a strong
feeling of relatedness [Cheal 1987].
Expressivity, that is, the communication of emotions and affection, is essential to
close relationships [Clark et al. 2001]. In fact, suppressing emotional expressions has
several negative effects. For example, Richards et al. [2003] instructed romantic cou-
ples to suppress their emotional expressions during a naturalistic interaction. They
found that suppressing emotions took a lot of effort and negatively influenced atten-
tion, since participants who suppressed emotions had poorer memory for what was
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30:8 M. Hassenzahl et al.
said during the interaction. Guldner [2003] reported that couples in enduring long-
distance relationships wrote emotionally expressive letters to each other twice as often
compared to those that broke up, even when he controlled for differences, for instance,
in trust, commitment. Hence, it seems important to physically separated couples to
express their emotions more regularly.
An important aspect of expressivity is reciprocity. Reciprocity addresses peoples’ ex-
pectation that others should and will respond to them in a way (e.g., in frequency) sim-
ilar to their own input. Findings suggest that couples who experience reciprocity tend
to have more satisfying relationships [Fletcher et al. 1987]. Emotional expressions
are personal exchanges, which call for an almost instant reply from their partners
[Kaye 2006]. This requirement in turn calls for the integration of expressive commu-
nication devices into daily routines, to facilitate the expression itself and a contingent
reply.
A main advantage of on-off and symbols is the flexibility in terms of interpretation.
Each couple can interpret the simple signal in their own way, that is, load it with
meaning. In addition, depending on the context, the same signal may have different
meanings for the same couple. For example, clicking the Virtual Intimate Object
[Kaye 2006] in the morning might represent a “Good Morning,” while a spontaneous
click at any time might be interpreted as “I love you” or “I think of you”. Moreover,
the simple signal disguises the emotional content of the communication, which
mitigates the privacy issue. For example, making an emotionally expressive phone
call in public may appear as inappropriate. Some people avoid using nicknames in
public (e.g., shnookums, sweet little teddy bear) or sometimes feel uncomfortable
with unintentionally sharing their emotions with others. This discomfort in turn can
lead to awkward phone conversations, potentially misinterpreted by the partner as
distancing. In contrast, artifacts based on on-off or symbols can be easily used in
public or other specific situations (e.g., a meeting), because only the partners involved
know about the actual meaning. In general, this strategy is strongly related to the
notion of “phatic communication” [Gibbs et al. 2005], which suggests the exchange
itself to be the focus of the interaction and not necessarily the content.
There is empirical evidence suggesting the on-off strategy to be promising (see
Baharin et al. [2008]). Kaye [2006] revealed that partners filled the “empty” token
of pressing a button with rich and personal information. However, there are still a
number of aspects to be considered in further research on devices for expressivity. In
general, we must take into account that individuals vary in their ability to accurately
express their emotions and to accurately identify the other’s emotions [Fitness 2001].
There might be also systematic gender differences. For instance, for men, instrumen-
tal positive actions (e.g., cook a dinner) are more important than affective positive
actions (e.g., say “I love you”). For women, it seems the opposite [Brehm 1992].
An aspect often neglected in expressivity is the exchange of negative emotions (e.g.,
arguing, conflict), although the expression of negative emotions might be important
to the success of a relationship. For example, having an argument on the phone is
more difficult to resolve than arguing face-to-face [Guldner 2003]. Thus, it might be
interesting to look for new ways of supporting expressivity in such emotionally complex
negative moments.
2.3 Physicalness
When asking couples what they miss the most during being separated, the sponta-
neous answer is “physical contact” [Werner et al. 2008]. Consequentially, simulating
mutual touch and related aspects is a valid strategy for designing relatedness. One
can further distinguish two substrategies: physiological parameters and gestures.
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Current Strategies of Mediating Intimate Relationships through Technology 30:9
The first substrategy, physiological parameters, focuses on the incidental secondary
effects of being physically close, typically associated with feelings of being in love, such
as heartbeat, heart rate, and body heat. For example, Werner et al. [2008] developed
united-pulse. It consists of two rings with a gap. These rings connect as soon as the
user closes the gap with his/her finger. Then the user can feel the partner’s heartbeat,
signified by pulsing vibrations. The other substrategy, gestures, imitates intimate ges-
tures, such as hand holding, stroking, and kissing. For example, Hug over a Distance
[Mueller et al. 2005] is an inflatable vest designed to create an experience similar to
being hugged.
From a psychological perspective, physical intimacy is a critical aspect of relation-
ships, especially important for romantic couples [Moss and Schwebel 1993]. Blondis
and Jackson [1982] even argue that touch may be the most important of all nonver-
bal behaviors. Touch positively impacts individuals’ physical and mental well-being
[Field 2001]. In fact, physical intimacy is one of the most direct ways to express feel-
ings, such as empathy, sexual attraction, and care. Thus, it seems of great interest to
enable physical intimacy through communication devices.
An important requirement for physicalness is simultaneity. Both users need to con-
tribute to the experience in a synchronous way. For example, when being hugged,
it is necessary to respond immediately and to reciprocate the hug. The need for si-
multaneity is one of the main challenges for concepts addressing physicalness, since
technology always takes an intermediate function that slows down the process and
might therefore even emphasize the separation. Many authors appear to be aware of
this difficulty and therefore suggest a symbolic or poetic interpretation, rather than
a one-to-one representation of physical intimacy, that is to replace physicalness with
expressivity [Mueller et al. 2005; Werner et al. 2008].
Other difficulties of physicalness are all types of contextual constraints, similar to
expressivity. For instance, kissing or holding hands are often spontaneous acts initi-
ated by one partner and then reciprocated by the other. Under these circumstances,
both individuals are in the same situation, and the initiator can take into account the
adequacy of the action in this specific situation. When physically separated, he/she
might not. Thus, one of the partners may want to feel physically close, while the other,
for example, is giving a talk at a conference and understandably, he/she does not have
the same desire, or at least cannot give in to it. In general, individuals in partnerships
do not always feel comfortable being physically close and develop implicit rules and
expectancies about when public intimacy is adequate and when it is not. This was also
one of the insights reported by O’Brien and Mueller [2006], whose study showed that
the moment participants felt the device caught too much public attention they hid it
somewhere or left it at home.
All in all, we assume that the mediation of physicalness is one of the most chal-
lenging within the field of designing for relatedness. Even though Haans et al. [2007]
showed that mediated social touch is perceived similar to unmediated touch, the
results only demonstrated that several characteristics, such as location (stomach,
arm, wrist, upper and lower back region) and type of touch (poke versus stroke) could
be distinguished. However, physicalness is more. It is about sensual coexperience,
highly emotional and with strong constraints concerning adequacy (e.g., public
display). Rather than focusing too much on touch itself, designers may focus more
on the experiences associated with touch, for instance, support, care, and empathy.
This would be in line with the finding that the frequency of break ups in long-distance
relationships is not greater than in geographically proximate relationships, suggesting
that the needs from romantic relationships are more emotional and psychological and
not mainly physically driven. Overall, from a design perspective, physicalness may be
a difficult strategy to address relatedness, albeit its seeming obviousness.
ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction, Vol. 19, No. 4, Article 30, Publication date: December 2012.
30:10 M. Hassenzahl et al.
2.4 Gift Giving
Gift giving refers to the voluntary transfer of a good without expecting compensation
(see Otnes and Beltramini [1996] for an overview). Belk and Coon [1993] distinguished
and found evidence for two different models underlying gift-giving in a dating context:
an “exchange model” and “agapic love model”. Exchange emphasizes the instrumen-
tal, pragmatic nature of gifts. The giver seeks control, expects a return, and monetary
issues play a role (either symbolically or economically). In contrast, agapic love em-
phasizes the expressive, spontaneous, idealistic nature of gifts. The giver abandons
control, the gift is nonbinding, and monetary issues do not play a role.
The person selecting a gift must carefully consider what the other might desire.
This requires some intimate knowledge of the other person. A carefully selected and
appropriate gift signals a certain intimacy and importance of the relationship. Fur-
thermore, gift giving often involves effort, such as finding a suitable gift (e.g., only
available from specific shops) or even making one. Effort also signals the importance
of a relationship. Moreover, gift giving often features a moment of surprise, when the
actual gift is revealed.
A concept exemplifying this strategy is Hello There by King and Forlizzi [2007].
It enables individuals to send audio messages associated with a particular location
and time. A sender records a message on a computer and uses a map to select a
geographical region to associate with the audio message. The receiver only gets the
message when physically present in the particular geographic location. The message
acts like a gift, hidden at a certain place as a surprise.
The most basic psychological function of gift giving is a symbolic communication
with explicit and implicit meanings of love [Mick and Demoss 1990]. In a romantic
relationship, partners regularly give gifts as a way to reveal their feelings [Shaver
and Hazan 1988]. Not surprisingly, gifts are proclaimed to play an essential role in
creating, maintaining, and enhancing relationships [Cheal 1987]. The exchange of
gifts conveys a variety of messages. For instance, gifts operate as markers of similarity
in tastes and interests between partners, signaling partner compatibility [Belk 1976].
Gifts are also beneficial for reducing the hazard of relationship dissolution as long as
used at a moderate level of frequency; if used too often, gifts can increase relationship
dissolution [Huang and Yu 2000].
Due to the pervasiveness of gifts and the pleasure they cause, it is tempting to incor-
porate aspects of gift giving into communication devices. In fact, a study of teenagers’
use of mobile phones [Taylor and Harper 2002] already revealed a number of gift-
giving-related practices, where, for example, messages are treated as gifts rather than
explicit communication. A central challenge seems the repeated creation of a true gift
giving experience with the same device, without losing significance and value.
2.5 Joint Action
Shared activities reinforce relationships [Wood and Inman 1993] by creating a shared
experience through joint action. One substrategy is to create new routines for a couple.
For example, Mutsugoto/Pillow Talk [Hayashi et al. 2008] is installed in the bedrooms
of two partners, living apart. When both partners are in bed and wearing a special
touch-activated ring, visible to a camera mounted above the bed, a system tracks the
movement of the ring. It then transmits virtual pen strokes and projects them onto
the body of the remote partner. If the partners’ movements cross, the lines will re-
act with each other and illuminate. This is an artificial, completely new activity for
a couple to feel closer. New routines are also a strategy to create relatedness for par-
ents and children [Yarosh et al. 2009]. For example, Distributed Hide-and-Seek [Vetere
et al. 2006] allows grandchildren and grandparents to play a game when being apart.
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Current Strategies of Mediating Intimate Relationships through Technology 30:11
Evjemo et al. [2004] suggested that the telephone is not a very suitable technology
for supporting interaction between grandparents and grandchildren. Playing simpli-
fies technology-mediated parent-child communication since any conversation is closely
tied to the concurrent activity. In other words, joint action can serve as a trigger for
concurrent and subsequent communication.
Another substrategy is to rely on established routines, and to enable the joint carry-
ing out of mundane everyday activities, even when being separated. An example, the
Lover’s Cup [Chung et al. 2006], which consists of two wirelessly connected cups. If
the user holds one cup, it triggers a soft glowing at the remote cup. When a person is
drinking, the rim of the other cup begins to glow. If both owners take a sip at the same
moment, both cups are glowing at its maximum. This artifact uses a simple activ-
ity, drinking, and creates a relatedness experience through encouraging simultaneous
drinking. However, this example is also very close to an awareness device. Artifacts
supporting more complex mundane routines, such as cooking, cleaning or having a
breakfast over a distance, were not apparent in the analyzed sample of artifacts.
When designing for joint action, a central challenge is the careful selection of the
activities. The goal is to create behavioral interdependence. This implies that each
partner’s behavior has implications for the other and at the same time signifies the
mutual influence partners have on each other. In a geographically colocated relation-
ship, behavioral interdependence is usually frequent, strong, diverse, and enduring.
In times of separation, however, partners act autonomously and their behaviors have
no impact on the other. To retain some of the behavioral interdependence while being
separated is, thus, the goal of this strategy. So far, the use of joint action is rather
restricted. There is an abundance of possibilities to, for example, play games against
each other even when geographically separated. However, playing a game may not
be the best example for behavioral interdependence, since games introduce additional
and somewhat artificial activities for the purpose of feeling related (i.e., new routines).
Sharing every day, mundane, real-world activities may be an alternative worthwhile
further exploring [Neustaedter and Greenberg 2012].
2.6 Memories
The strategy memories is about enabling people to reexperience past joint moments
without the necessary participation of the partner at the moment of reexperiencing.
In contrast to the previous strategies, according artifacts expect much more effort
from the user to create the potential reexperiencing, such as documenting special
moments or curating them. An example is SMOKS [Berzowska and Coelho 2006],
a suit capturing memories by representing traces of human touch, by recording and
playing back sounds, and by providing hiding places for physical mementoes. The
SMOKS neckline, for example, features a microphone to record intimate sounds (e.g.,
whispers) automatically.
The use of memorabilia to mediate relatedness in moments of separation is com-
mon. Constructional artifacts, such as wedding bands or other physical objects, such
as clothing and ornaments, are typical for maintaining the continuity of a relation-
ship in absence [Sigman 1991]. Couples tend to collect souvenirs, pictures, and other
things that subsume and represent their past history (see Petrelli et al. [2008] about
the meanings of mementos). Kjeldskov et al. [2004] reported that some of their partic-
ipants made great efforts to maintain their memories (e.g., in photo albums). Photos
and other tokens are a manifest declaration of the relationship. In addition, they act
as signifiers and reminders of earlier investments made into the relationship [Rusbult
1980].
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30:12 M. Hassenzahl et al.
Other than the former strategies, artifacts relying on memory do not require a tech-
nical connection with the partner. Thus, they are very helpful when partners miss
their loved ones, but know that they cannot contact them or do not want the other to
know about his/her feeling. We further assume that one of the biggest challenges of
this strategy might be the importance of tangibility. Bhandari and Bardzell [2008],
for example, reported that the very fact that partners could touch artifacts that had
a special meaning, made them feel closer to their remote partners. The tangibility of
“sacred” objects is important, because people assume positive contamination: the no-
tion that through physical contact the essence of an object (here: a memory) is trans-
ferred to the one touching it [Belk 1988].
2.7 Summary
Our review of published artifacts revealed six main strategies: Physicalness focuses
on the physical aspect of relatedness, while awareness attempts to create a cognitive
copresence of a couple. Expressivity particularly considers the emotional and affective
aspects of intimate relationships and their deliberate exchange. Joint action addresses
the importance of behavioral interdependence, while memories attempt to foster the
commitment to an established close relationship. Eventually, gift giving is about ex-
pressing appreciation by carefully selecting something of meaning for the other, either
material or immaterial. Our further analysis revealed differences in the relative fre-
quency of using a particular strategy as the core of a concept, with awareness and
expressivity being the most common. Obviously, the six strategies are not exhaustive.
Designers/researchers will discover additional ways to create a relatedness experience
over distance or time. But the six strategies are at the heart of current attempts to
design for relatedness.
3. A COMMENT ON USE OF THEORIES AND METHODS
To design for relatedness, especially for close relationships, requires a profound under-
standing of people. To identify the extent to which designers of the artifacts exploited
psychological theories, models, or empirical findings, we reviewed the reference lists
of the 92 publications and located references to theoretical or empirical psychological
work. Despite our large scope, considering not only close relationships but also the
broader topics of communication and emotion, we identified only 44 publications with
at least one external reference. In other words, slightly less than half of the artifacts
(48%) made explicit use of external theoretical and empirical psychological knowledge.
Among these, the most commonly mentioned topics were intimacy [Chung et al. 2006;
Vetere et al. 2005], love [Pujol and Umemuro 2009; Saslis-Lagoudakis et al. 2006],
communication [Lindley et al. 2009; Tsujita et al. 2009], emotion [Li and Jianting
2009; Tollmar and Persson 2002], touch [Chang et al. 2002; Motamedi 2007], and play
[Feltham et al. 2007].
Additionally, we explored to what extent designers employed empirical methods in
early phases of the design process (i.e., for analysis). Only slightly less than half of
the publications (46%) explicitly mentioned a research method. Typical methods were
interviews [King and Forlizzi 2007], observations [Tollmar et al. 2000], cultural probes
[Vetere et al. 2005], contextual inquiries [Dey and De Guzman 2006], and focus groups
[Lindley et al. 2009]. The application of the according methods itself varied immensely,
from informal interviews with a small ad-hoc sample of people to comprehensive longi-
tudinal studies. By linking the information given about the theoretical approach and
research methods conducted, we found that 37% of the publications did neither refer to
external psychological knowledge nor employed an explicit method for own empirical
analysis.
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Current Strategies of Mediating Intimate Relationships through Technology 30:13
We further investigated whether there was any kind of evaluation study or doc-
umentation of experiences created through the artifacts. Sixty-one percent received
some sort of evaluation. We further categorized those according to the kind of evalu-
ation study, and differentiated between (longitudinal) field studies (25%) and prelimi-
nary (laboratory) studies (36%). Field studies used functional prototypes. They varied
in length from one week to several months. Slightly less than a half of the field studies
did not last longer than two weeks. The average duration was about six weeks. The
average sample size was about four couples (i.e., eight individuals). Self-report data
and log data (e.g., frequency, content of messages) were collected. Depending on the
length of the longitudinal study, participants were also asked to fill in diaries on a
daily or a weekly basis. Additionally, most studies included interviews or open-ended
questionnaires at the end of the study.
In general, the field studies can be characterized as exploratory. We found only
a small number of studies with predefined hypotheses (an exception is Dey and De
Guzman [2006]). Largely, researchers explored responses and reported on the specific
issues, such as privacy or ambiguity, they found. Accordingly, only a small number
of studies mentioned or employed standardized tests to capture the mediation of inti-
macy, such as the “Affective Benefits and Costs of Communication Questionnaire” [van
Baren et al. 2004].
Laboratory tests used paper prototypes or working prototypes. In general, partic-
ipants interacted with the prototype and were then asked about their experience. In
some cases, they were further instructed to imagine interacting with the concept in
predefined scenarios. Tests did not always take place in an actual laboratory. Re-
searchers used conference workshops, demonstration sessions, museums or exhibi-
tions, but in “laboratory mode,” where the user got a demonstration and was asked
for comments, rather than in a “field mode,” where concepts are placed into a real
setting. Due to missing documentation in some publications and differences in the
evaluation methods, we can only estimate the average sample size as about 16 partic-
ipants or eight couples, respectively. In general, most laboratory tests were framed as
“pilot tests.”
In sum, two—from our perspective slightly problematic—practices became appar-
ent: (1) the underutilization of already existing knowledge and (2) the only prelimi-
nary empirical explorations of resulting experiences. The first is the consequence of a
widely shared bottom-up approach to the analysis of people and contexts. Designers
quite correctly insist on first-hand experience of their subject matter and use ethnog-
raphy and phenomenological-inspired approaches to immerse themselves into the con-
text to build up the empathy necessary for sensible design. While this is an important
practice, which we should not abandon, there is another source of knowledge available
through models and theories of the subject matter. However, despite of the availability
of profound theoretical and empirical knowledge about relatedness (e.g., from Social
Psychology), designers/researchers limit their scope to HCI-related or design-related
publication outlets. In other words, even researchers working in a highly interdisci-
plinary field such as HCI tend to not make appropriate use of knowledge acquired by
researchers from other disciplines. For instance, to our best knowledge, we did not
find any artifact, reflecting explicitly upon potentially different requirements implied
by different types of love [Sternberg 1986] or potential transitions in a relationship,
such as psychological stage theories suggest [Reiss 1960]. Furthermore, insights from
research investigating long-distance relationships and maintenance theories in close
relationships were mainly disregarded. In general, we must tap into available, already
cumulated knowledge by using external models and theories as an additional source
of inspiration [Hassenzahl 2010, pp. 73]. Only half of the papers reviewed here made
any external reference to this knowledge. It remains a common practice to exclusively
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30:14 M. Hassenzahl et al.
stick to one’s own “research,” which creates the danger to produce insights already
available through previous, and often more elaborate research. It is difficult from a
design perspective to research a given field such as close relationships professionally,
so why not rely on the already available insights of experts, and use their theories in
the sense of a “theoretically inspired design”?
The preliminary empirical explorations so typical for design work highlight a second
problem, that of lacking resources. It can be overwhelmingly difficult to produce a func-
tional prototype fit for a prolonged field test, carried out, analyzed and reported profes-
sionally. Yet the academic HCI community literally requires any designer/researcher
to conduct an empirical evaluation of her or his artifact to be published [Greenberg
and Buxton 2008]. The lack of resources leads to favoring easier, more informal ways
of gathering empirical feedback, which can be riddled with methodological problems;
problems not easily spotted by the same community, which presses for empirical eval-
uation. The question at hand is whether we actually need an empirical exploration
(i.e., test, evaluation) at all that often or whether we should employ a more analytic al-
ternative as an intermediate. As Greenberg and Buxton [2008] argued “[...] authors
should critique the design: why things were done, what else was considered, what
they learned, expected problems, how it fits in the broader context of both prior art
and situated context, what is to be done next, and so on” (p. 118). More formalized,
Bardzell [2011], for example, offers “Interaction Criticism” as an analytic alternative,
“a knowledge practice that enables design practitioners to engage with the aesthetics
of interaction, helping practitioners cultivate more sensitive and insightful critical re-
actions to designs and exemplars.” Such an analytic and critical approach may be a
viable extension or even an alternative to empirical exploration. At least, critical re-
flection should serve as an ever-present first step in assessing new ideas and concepts,
way before any empirical evaluation takes place.
4. CONCLUSION
Our summary revealed a substantial interest among HCI researchers and interaction
designers in designing for relatedness experiences. Given the central role of the fulfill-
ment of relatedness for humans’ lives, this endeavor is highly relevant. The present
article is intended as a tool to get into the field more easily. It aims at supporting the
design of technology-mediated relatedness in at least five ways. First, the list of arti-
facts and the summarized strategies provide inspiration. Second, when interested in a
certain strategy, further external material may guide the build-up of design-relevant
insights. Third, the article describes current design practice, for example, through the
estimates of which strategies are more common than others. This may help design-
ers locating “white spots” to populate with novel design ideas. Fourth, we recommend
making more use of already available knowledge (i.e., theories, models, findings) from
external sources (e.g., Social Psychology) for inspiration. Fifth, we believe an analyti-
cal and critical practice of reflection to be a viable alternative to empirical evaluations
too rushed and too informal.
Given the meaning of relatedness for human beings, the small number of com-
mercial products explicitly supporting the mediation of relatedness beyond explicit
communication is remarkable. Even though there seem to be market opportunities,
with the high demands on personal mobility and the consequently increasing number
of people living in a long-distance relationships, manufacturers seem hesitant. A rare
exception is, for example, the Hug Shirt by Cutecircuit4, a shirt to send and receive
hugs over a distance by detecting and reproducing parameters, such as the strength of
4http://www.cutecircuit.com/hug-shirt
ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction, Vol. 19, No. 4, Article 30, Publication date: December 2012.
Current Strategies of Mediating Intimate Relationships through Technology 30:15
the touch, body temperature and the heartbeat rate of the sender. Altogether, we found
only five products and two online services designed to connect distant individuals in a
more subtle way than available technologies, such as email, mobile phones, webcams,
already provide. The reasons for the skewed ratio of experimental to commercial
concepts are manifold. First of all, the idea to enable relatedness by other ways than
explicit, verbal communication or social media may be popular among researchers,
but may have not reached industry, yet. Product managers might have difficulties to
accept such concepts as a realistic product idea since they often do not fit into the
efficiency and functionality-driven traditions of technology producing companies. The
benefits of, for example, synchronized lamps or trash boxes, as suggested by SyncDecor
[Tsujita et al. 2007] are difficult to capture in common marketing terms, or may even
appear impractical. The appreciation of the experiential value that might result from
integrating a device such as SyncDecor in daily routines requires a more thorough
rethinking of models of customer value [Hassenzahl 2011]. Given that many products
based on the classical conversational model of the telephone, enriched with video,
such as Skype or Apple’s video calling application FaceTime, are already a success,
it needs a strategy to foster interest in new, more subtle forms of communication.
Besides the challenge to point out the benefits of alternative, less explicit forms
of communication, we require more profound insights into people’s acceptance and
willingness to use such devices. As already discussed, communication devices exclu-
sively built to exchange emotions with the partner might evoke a (counterproductive)
pressure to express one’s feelings. Concepts addressing awareness require a high
willingness for self-disclosure and, thus, affect privacy and surveillance issues.
Although some authors acknowledged these issues, more research is needed to learn
about the acceptance and problems of such devices to build a convincing case of
designing the relatedness experience. We hope this article will encourage and help
designers to work on ever more convincing examples of technologies designed to create
and mediate relatedness.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
Stephanie, all this could have been yours! We deeply miss you.
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