Designing Technologies for Empathic Communication
If you have ever used your phone while on a date to send a text message, or snapped a picture with a friend to upload to Facebook, or cut a sentence down to 140 characters to broadcast on Twitter, you may agree with some leading Social Scientists that technology is changing the way we relate with one another. Our interactions through technology seem to be getting increasingly short with less sophisticated language. More and more, our thoughts are broadcast to everyone instead of intended for someone special. Yet, there is something profoundly human and central to our development that is neglected in these interchanges. Close human relationships---with families, significant others, friends---need complex, intimate, ongoing conversations in order to create and maintain empathic connectivity. In these types of conversations, individuals become part of one another, defined by each other. Together, they change, they grow, they find meaning in life. This is, in essence, what I call Empathic Communication.
Until now, this concern has been largely neglected in the field of Human-Computer Interaction, a community of researchers and technology designers who are arguably best positioned to address it. To suggest one path forward, in this dissertation I raise the question of whether computer technologies can become brokers of Empathic Communication between people who care about each other, with a specific focus on intimate partners. How can we conceptualize Empathic Communication, how can we build tools that support it, and how do we know if we have succeeded?
I address these questions by creating a simplified model of the therapeutic process of intimate reconnection, or the 4Rs framework---Repattern, Reflect, Restory, Reconnect. Using the 4Rs framework as an ideation tool, I designed and field-tested a technology concept for a dyadic journaling application, Diary Built for Two, that might help romantic partners reconnect through deep communication. Using the 4Rs framework as an evaluation tool, I found that Diary Built for Two enabled more intimate, more thoughtful, more Empathic Communication that changed the way partners saw themselves, one another, and their relationship. Unexpectedly, I found that research interviews I conducted with intimate partners had the same type of therapeutic effect. Simply asking partners questions about their relationship caused them to reflect on and change their understandings of their relationship and each other.
To guide other researchers and designers of Empathic Communication Technologies (ECTs), I present a set of specific outcomes of my study. First, I present Symmetric and Asymmetric interface profiles, which identify new human-technology configurations that may better support deep communication---for example, having one shared device between two people, as opposed to one separate device for each. I also share some of the ways in which research interviews may positively and negatively affect study participants towards reconsidering current informed consent practices. Both of these findings showcase the utility of selectively conceptualizing our technology designs as well as our research methods as therapeutic interventions; when we apply the therapy metaphor, new design and research opportunities become apparent.