Design Research, HCI
This thesis explores how design and technology might help to improve interpersonal connections between family members living far apart. Scentie-Talkie, a wireless prototype, uses scent to enable distant people to feel a shared presence.
With an abundance of explicit communication channels available, and even more in development, this research posits that to facilitate intimate relationships over distance, more implicit and abstract platforms also merit exploration.
1. Cultural Probes
For conducting research, I created a research probes kit to gain new insights about communication dynamics in my family and potential desires for a new way of conversing. Cultural probes were developed by William Gaver, Tony Dunne, and Elena Pacenti in 1999 to provide more artistic ways of researching participants other than in a scientific way. The probe materials can be anything from postcards, maps, cameras to elicit inspiring responses from the research participants. I considered cultural probes would provide a great way to engage my family members non-intrusively. Through my probes, I aimed to get inspired and identify design opportunities to enrich the existing messaging technique that we use. I also participated using the probes kit so I could discuss my perspectives about the whole process and results.
2. Semi-Structured Interviews
Now that I have a channel to collect inspirations from the probes kit, I wanted to conduct a few semi-structured interviews to gather information from participants. I ended up interviewing three people who have either families or friends overseas or in a different state. I prepared interview questions grouping into three categories: about their values, methods, and chat possessions while doing a long-distance communication.
Insights and Design Opportunities
1. People are looking for different ways to share moments rather than having informative conversations all the time
From the interviews and getting feedbacks from the Master of Design process poster show, people who experience long-distance relationships responded that aspects that they miss the most about their loved ones are having their constant presence in their daily lives or spending time together. This contrasts with a current preconception of ‘keeping in touch,’ which is usually explicitly updating on one’s status. This brings an exciting opportunity where designing for shared moments for far away loved ones can become valuable.
2. Designing for asynchronous communication while having a constant presence in a house supports a stronger sense of emotional connection over a distance
A frequent challenge that long-distance families face is finding time that works for them to get together. This becomes especially difficult for people living in different time zones. It’s nice to have synchronizing activities such as eating together or watching something together while video chatting, but it is challenging to manage a schedule with the time difference. However, having a constant presence at home while designing for asynchronous activities allows remote family members to connect without time constraints.
3. Spontaneous and non-verbal communication can provide unique ways of communicating with for families and friends living far apart
Our current popular platforms for remote communications (video chats, text messages, voice calls) tend to fall into a cycle of having somewhat repetitive and expected conversations. My assumption for why this problem space emerges is that there is no stages of anticipation for conversations. Through my research probes, especially the one with the instant camera, having an expectation of receiving some non-verbal cues about your loved-ones sparked curiosity which led to follow-up conversations to find more about the photos that were taken. Adding anticipation for conversations provides unique ways of communicating transcending short-lived remote communications.
Designing the Prototypes
The prototype that I made, Scentie-Talkie, is a wirelessly connected communication device that allows distant others to share presence through a sense of smell. Motion from one house is detected using the HIVE motion sensor, and it activates a servo motor to dispense a drop of essential oil through IFTTT/Adafruit channel using Arduino, NodeMCU LoLin.
Planning for User-testing
With the two sets of the 3d printed prototypes, I wanted to deploy them in real-world scenarios to user-test informally. Since it was problematic to send the prototypes to my family members in Korea due to time constraints and technical difficulties, I decided to use it for myself when my partner was traveling for work for a week (from March 17 to 25, 2019) to Amsterdam, Netherlands and while I stayed in Seattle, Washington. I picked Bay Laurel for my partner since it reminded me of his regular habit of tea brewing at home.
My goal with the user-testing was to observe how we would interact with these devices. I created logbooks to document desires, behaviors, and feelings while using and living with the prototypes. I was curious to see what the variables are for mundane behaviors when/how often we will activate the device, and where we would place each prototype. Eventually, I hoped to observe how the olfactory communication method affects our relationship while we are far away and how we appropriate the devices into our everyday routines.
More to come in upcoming months…!