Loneliness and Digital Touch Communication
My research aims to explore connections between touch, loneliness and emerging touch technologies, and develop upon design methods and resources to support more socially aware future engagement in this area.
The physical, psychological and emotional benefits of touch for well-being, development, and feeling connected are well-documented; there is a clear potential value to bringing touch into the digital realm – especially in recent months where touching has been more prohibited and less available. However, our digital interactions mostly still lack touch and tactile experiences, and the commercial touch technologies that do exist are at a very early stage of development.
My research addresses the following questions:
- How do participants frame touch and digital touch in narratives of loneliness?
- How do participants’ narratives relate to those produced and speculated on by the media, and digital artists, designers, marketers and researchers?
- What dimensions of these narratives and experiences are key to inform socially aware future design and use of digital touch technologies in relation to loneliness?
- What insights can open-ended and speculative design methods (both off- and on-line) provide on the role of touch and digital touch in personal narratives of loneliness?
Stage 1: Pilot workshop, Wellcome Collection, November 2019
My fieldwork began with an open-participation pilot workshop, ‘Mapping Loneliness and Touch’ at the Wellcome Collection Reading Room in November 2019.
This (pre-lockdown) workshop included shared in-situ resources, such as ‘tactile mood boards’ and a ‘touchy vocab’, which acted as prompts to help participants think about and through touch and how it might be framed in experiences of loneliness:
Images from the pilot workshop, including tactile mood boards and the ‘touchy vocab’.
Participants’ maps, framing touch in their experiences of loneliness.
Stage 2: Online research workshop series & digital cultural probes (May – Dec 2020)
This stage involved a three-part creative workshop series (including methods like mapping and rapid prototyping, and discussions of current touch technologies – real and speculative – designed around contexts and ideas of loneliness. In-between the workshops participants were invited to engage with some touch-oriented (digital) cultural probes to help develop ideas and discussions. Together, the workshops and probes aimed to support participants to think about the complex areas of loneliness, touch and digital touch, in stages.
When the first Covid lockdown began in March 2020, it was of course no longer possible to have the shared touch experience of the co-present workshops originally planned. You can find out more about the adaptations I made and how I addressed the methodological challenges of moving my research online in this blog post with the International Journal of Social Research Methodology, and this #MadeAtUCL podcast.
I ran six workshop series in total between May and December 2020, with two groups of people over-70, two groups of people aged 25-55 new to working from home, and two groups of young people aged 18-24.
(1) Screenshots of the website hosting the digital cultural probes tasks (featuring Week 1 tasks); (2) Screenshots from the online workshops; (3) A touch technology rapid prototype. Adapting my methods online led to a a changed relationship to materials, switching from resources like the tactile mood boards, to drawing on the home resources of participants.
Stage 3: Hey Bracelet trial (December 2020 – April 2021)
In the final stage, three workshop participants are trialling a working digital touch technology – the Hey Bracelet – with a chosen partner for up to two months.
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or use the form below if you would like to get in touch!