15 Feb 2014

making our mobile experiences sm(heart)er

Last Valentine’s day I was busy at work on my Master of Graphic Design thesis at NC State. I had some hunches about what form my research and design about “meaningful conversation” should take, but as in all good thinking-through-making wanderings I could not predict the outcome.

Extending and Enhancing Meaningful Conversation book cover

Extending and Enhancing Meaningful Conversation book cover

During this holiday week it has been exciting to see my newsfeed—once again—fill up with articles about the emotional significance (or not) of our interactions with each other via social apps and smartphones. Articles such as "How Gadgets Ruin Relationships and Corrupt Emotions" by Dr. Sue Johnson and "Why Being Unfollowed Can Feel Like Having Your Heart Ripped Out" by Joe Berkowitz indicate we experience designers and software developers still have a lot of work to do to prevent easy and efficient connecting from crowding out the emotional aspects of how we engage with the people we care about most.

Here is an excerpt from my thesis, Extending and Enhancing Meaningful Conversation. This provocation along with my research findings, process and companion catalog of fictional products was first published in April 2013 and is now available for purchase on Lulu or you can browse through the book on Issuu.

Companion catalog of fictional products with foldout poster cover featuring each Sm(heart) Phone Mandate

Companion catalog of fictional products with foldout poster cover featuring each Sm(heart) Phone Mandate

   

Provocation: “App” Stands for Appliance
Communication appliances, like the array of social apps inside my smart phone, are shaping me. Like a dishwasher or an oven, these appliances are tools for helping me get things done. With each appliance I perform a singular communication task, or closely related set of tasks, to generate or respond to bits and fragments of conversation with my social network (Gaver, Martin, and College 2000, 209). Most appliances, however, don’t interact with my personhood as dramatically as Facebook or Twitter. I am in danger when I mindlessly interact with apps in the same way I do household appliances. The habits I form using them affect my relationships with the people I care about.
 


Today, each app is its own little fiefdom of talk, with social codes and peculiarities to learn. I speak in 140 character snippets for Twitter; craft carefully worded humble-brags for Facebook; and capture selfie after selfie of my Saturday night escapades for Instagram to show the fun I’m having. Because I’m not sure who in my social network is where and when, I broadcast these messages in duplicate and triplicate across all their channels.

These appliances are effective only when my communication goals match those determined by software makers. In general, appliance interface design is aimed at universally maximizing my communication potential by connecting me to more people, more quickly, and more efficiently—a value system imported from the workplace. Broadcasting content using communication appliances is “easy.” But what if I don’t want to talk to everyone in the same way? As things stand, my appliances don’t let me choose how I behave towards the different people I talk to, whether an acquaintance or a close friend.
 


 

Dispossessing: The Relic makes it possible to dispossess all traces of a relationship from digital life. Resting the Relic on the surface of a formerly cherished friend’s page pulls every mark of his or her presence out of your digital life and into the object. Place the Relic in the Forgetting Box for seven days to dispossess the person forever. Though, if you change your mind, just remove the Relic from its box and keep the relationship preserved, but at a safe distance.

Dispossessing: The Relic makes it possible to dispossess all traces of a relationship from digital life. Resting the Relic on the surface of a formerly cherished friend’s page pulls every mark of his or her presence out of your digital life and into the object. Place the Relic in the Forgetting Box for seven days to dispossess the person forever. Though, if you change your mind, just remove the Relic from its box and keep the relationship preserved, but at a safe distance.

Surely there is another way. I want the experience of talking to the people that matter most to feel different: more meaningful and intimate in a way where I feel my innermost self validated, understood and cared for by another (Aron, Aron, and Smollan 1992, 598). Designers must find alternatives to the current slate of offerings.

Social appliances are inflexible and domineering. I find myself bending toward my communication appliances and the limited actions they allow me to take. I feed social networks quantifiable facts and snapshot content in exchange for mindless, push-button methods of connecting to everyone in the same way. I know that being friends in the digital world is not an indicator of actual friendship.

My actions don’t resemble my intentions. As my devices grow “smarter” I find myself acting dumber. I feel a growing divide between how my appliances ask me to converse with others and how I know I like to be talked to. I want to choose not to be lured away from those I care for by the louder, bigger mob. I want my efforts, to listen to and engage with the people who matter most, to be rewarded.
 


 

Muffler shows a companion (and proves to you) that you are devoted to a conversation by pushing distant others to the periphery. If you forget your intent to be present, Muffler gently nudges you when it senses a cherished friend is near. Muffler demands elaborate and deliberate interaction when first engaged, but your phone demands less attention once muffled. To reactivate a muffled phone when that friend is present, you must perform the elaborate interaction in reverse. Otherwise, the smartphone eases you back into a connected state once you leave your cherished friend, carefully delivering any waiting messages according to emotional priority.

Muffler shows a companion (and proves to you) that you are devoted to a conversation by pushing distant others to the periphery. If you forget your intent to be present, Muffler gently nudges you when it senses a cherished friend is near. Muffler demands elaborate and deliberate interaction when first engaged, but your phone demands less attention once muffled. To reactivate a muffled phone when that friend is present, you must perform the elaborate interaction in reverse. Otherwise, the smartphone eases you back into a connected state once you leave your cherished friend, carefully delivering any waiting messages according to emotional priority.

Interfaces obscure who and what I care about. I know for whom I care most. But tools with so-called egalitarian principles make it hard for me to distinguish the voice of a loved one from the voice of an acquaintance. Since I have more acquaintances than real friends, their words are all I see. Appliance interfaces that don’t allow me to distinguish among voices get in the way of my most important relationships.

Individual voice is muffled by algorithms and templates. I create and tend to a version of myself that suits the model I am offered by those with technical know-how and little concern for me as an individual. My efforts to share with—and talk to—others in meaningful ways become little more than patterns in data for unknown people to decode (Lanier 2010, 70). As I attempt to reconcile the gap between who I believe myself to be and who I see reflected back at me after being filtered through profile generating machines and pattern-seeking bots, I no longer recognize myself and no longer see what makes me and my friends special.
 


 

Jewelry Obscura is for a punk who wants to interrupt the functions of the machine, but not kill the party. You know the difference between being a sm<3 phone user and being used, so you assert your presence when it feels right to you. Jewelry Obscura does not prevent a friend from taking your picture, but it does prevent that friend from broadcasting your face to people who weren’t there, or who you don’t know. Your friend retains the original photo—duck lips and all—though the jewelry constructs an alternate version for public sharing with the charm or message you choose.

Jewelry Obscura is for a punk who wants to interrupt the functions of the machine, but not kill the party. You know the difference between being a sm<3 phone user and being used, so you assert your presence when it feels right to you. Jewelry Obscura does not prevent a friend from taking your picture, but it does prevent that friend from broadcasting your face to people who weren’t there, or who you don’t know. Your friend retains the original photo—duck lips and all—though the jewelry constructs an alternate version for public sharing with the charm or message you choose.

There is a better way.

Closeness can be represented more substantially in social spaces (whether physical or digital). But to make that happen, designers like me must imagine possibilities for bridging the emotional gaps communication appliances create. Designers must trust that people will try new things; believe they are brave and curious; and understand people want experiences that amplify their humanity, not dampen it. As a replacement for the status quo, I offer Sm<3 Phone Mandates to enable heart-centric conversation.

1 Appliance Device that performs a single function (or closely related cluster of functions) (Gaver, Martin, and College 2000, 209).

2 Closeness High degree of relationship quality, trust, perceived empathy and attention (Przybylski and Weinstein 2012).