Working Title: Loneliness and Digital Touch Communication Technologies
In this PhD, I bring two complex areas – touch and loneliness, into conversation through attention to digital touch technologies.
Both touch and loneliness are important aspects of being human. Loneliness affects everyone at different points in their lives, but the role of touch, especially in ‘everyday’ experiences has been underexplored.
Loneliness has increasingly been framed as a ‘problem’ that needs curing, with touch only more recently introduced into the conversation. Speculative and emerging commercial touch technologies mostly frame digital touch as a kind of cure for loneliness, but in reality, both touch technologies and their relationship to loneliness are at an emergent stage and little research foregrounds the role of digital / touch.
The small number of loneliness studies featuring touch (mostly from healthcare) or digital touch (mostly human computer interaction and design) have largely taken place in medical or lab-bound contexts, where the social and bodily aspects of loneliness and touch are missing.
The aims of this PhD are two-fold: 1) to empirically contribute to understanding of the potential connections between loneliness, and digital / touch; and 2) to develop design methods and materials to support HCI and other areas of design in future engagement with loneliness and digital / touch.
The PhD addresses the following research questions:
- What insights can speculative and open-ended design methods and different types of materials/activities provide on the role of touch in personal narratives of loneliness?
- What narratives of loneliness and digital /touch are differently envisioned and constructed by participants, the media, HCI and art and design?
- What dimensions of narratives/experiences etc are key to inform future design and use of digital touch technologies as they relate to loneliness?
- How do participants perceive current digital communication technologies in their experiences of loneliness?
- What role do they envision/desire for digital touch technologies?
As with broader studies of loneliness, research including digital touch largely relies on a limited selection of language-based methods (i.e. audio-recorded interviews and questionnaires). Methods and materials to support participants to understand and articulate their experiences in relation to digital / touch require development.
The methodology in this PhD draws on a Research Through Design approach, using Participatory Design workshops and Design-led methods such as mapping, Rapid Prototyping and Cultural Probes, in combination with interviews and Discourse Analysis.
I ran a pilot workshop Mapping Loneliness and Touch in the Wellcome Collection Reading Room on 27 November 2019. This formed part of the Wellcome’s Open Platform series, where events are announced in the building on the day. The format spontaneously draws in a range of members of the public who are interested in the announced workshop topic. The workshop had three main aims. Firstly, to understand how participants defined and viewed loneliness. Secondly, to trial a workshop design (including activities, materials and group work) for supporting participants to explore loneliness and touch. Finally, it aimed to understand whether, and in what ways participants connected touch to their experiences of loneliness.
Due to the one-hour time constraint of the Open Platform format, the workshop focused on loneliness and its potential relationships to touch rather than digital touch (informing the first of the proposed series of workshops for the PhD). This consisted of three activities: 1) asking participants to anonymously define what loneliness meant to them, and whether they thought it could ever be productive; 2) a two-part mapping activity, where participants were invited to mind-map their experiences of loneliness over time; and 3) engage with a set of ‘tactile probes’ to map when and in what ways touch played a role in those experiences. The workshop materials (anonymous question slips/envelopes and post box for Activity 1, a mind-map worksheet for Activity 2 and tactile probes for Activity 3) were developed to support and prompt participants in thinking about their experiences of loneliness and touch in stages.
The tactile probes comprised materials samples and sticky labels printed with words describing types of touch and tactile qualities. Additional materials, such as blank labels, coloured dot stickers and ‘handle with care’ packaging labels, were also made available. material probes featured cuttings taken from everyday household items (such as foil, sandpaper, bubble wrap and cotton wool pads). Participants were encouraged to refer to these as inspiration and could transfer the labels or cuttings from the probe sheets to their maps.
As encouraged, each participant interpreted the mapping activity brief and worksheet space in distinct and creative ways and both sets of tactile probes functioned successfully as provocations for the final activity. The outputs and discussions from the workshop indicate a rich space for developing methods and materials to help participants articulate and analyse their thoughts on digital touch, and for developing insights around the future design and use of digital touch.
A series of three, two-hour Participatory Design workshops will be held with participants over five-months. In between these workshops, participants will be given sets of Cultural Probes (kits made up of different materials and short tasks for participants to carry out at home). These will be designed to help participants build on reflections and connections made in the workshops and also document when new moments of loneliness occur. Deploying the probes in stages also aims to capture more of the nuanced and longitudinal information which reflects loneliness’s fluid nature (a less researched area in the literature).
After the workshops have ended and the Cultural Probes returned, a commercially available touch technology will be deployed ‘in the wild’ amongst a smaller group of participants. This will complement the more exploratory and speculative positioning the previous Probes and will provide the study with another lens to explore how tactile technologies might work longitudinally in relation to loneliness, allowing engagement with questions such as 1) whether digital touch (re)shapes participants’ experience of loneliness in any way, 2) what the experience of having a tactile layer in long distance communication is like, 3) whether engagement with the technology lasts beyond interest in it as a novelty and 4) if and how it changes participants’ perceptions of the broader relationship between loneliness and digital communication technologies. Participants involved in this phase of the study will be provided with another set of Cultural Probes, designed to record their interactions and reflections during the two-month period. Participants will be interviewed afterwards about their experiences.