Thesis Development — Part 1

This quarter, I started my thesis research by conducting secondary research looking at related works on literature and existing artifacts. And then I dove into primary research by using three different primary research methods: cultural probes, semi-structured interviews, and personal inventory observations. I’m still waiting to have all my probes kits back over winter break, but I was able to do a mini-synthesis to find out some design opportunities with the rest of my research.

Before sharing design opportunities and potential outcomes, I’d like to recap on my research questions and statement.

My research questions are:

  1. How can design be used to cultivate more meaningful interactions for families and friends living far apart?
  2. How might we create a tool for families to build more lasting memories together?

And my research statement is…

“As remote communication increasingly takes place on digital platforms, we are losing the physical artifacts that traditionally sustained our memory. Chat histories build up in the digital space, but most conversations accumulate without any curation involved, resulting in fragmented memories. My thesis explores design opportunities to cultivate more meaningful long-distance interactions to enrich our collective sense of identity.”

Pigeon post as a method of communication

My personal motivation for this thesis began from questioning “How can design cultivate more meaningful interactions in remote conversations?” When communicating using digital telecommunication tools, people are often left with no physical artifacts to look back or reflect. People who live far away from their families and friends build their memories using “instant” virtual platforms often leaving inaccessible trails of a history of communication. People are increasingly living with virtual collections of their accumulated online data, such as music history, chat history, e-books, photo collections, etc. Unlike physical objects, these virtual things are hard for one to grasp onto or to look back and difficult to share with others. Belk states, “Sharing tends to be a communal act that links us to other people. It is not the only way in which we may connect with others, but it is a potentially powerful one that creates feelings of solidarity and bonding [1]” When people are experiencing remote relationships, sharing both physical and digital things become a difficult step for them. Often, these things remain one’s belongings and challenging to become “ours [2]” I became curious about possibilities on a collective identity-building with remote family members since virtual communications have never resulted in either a material or a digital form that is curated. I found two years of archived chat history from my family’s virtual chat room, but the archived digital artifact felt meaningless although it meant more than what I’ve felt. Eventually, I’m hoping my thesis will help distant people to find value in their virtual possessions built through communication platforms and to engage with their possessions in a new and more meaningful way.

Secondary Research

Just to introduce a few papers from my secondary research,

Pensieve [3] is a system that helps people remember to reminisce by sending them occasional emails containing “memory triggers”. In the paper, researchers found that people value spontaneous reminders to reminisce as well as the ability to write about it. It was interesting to read about how the activity of reminiscing not only provides pleasure and enjoyment but also strengthens self-esteem.

From discussions in class and from interviews with people who are experiencing long-distance relationships talked about how communication with loved ones from far away is not only about active engagement through verbal communication, but sometimes it’s just about spending time together and sharing activities or places.

Lover’s Cups [4] project “enables people to share the time of drinking with someone they care about in different places.” The act of drinking together “enhances traditional communication interfaces such as audio, video, or text communication tools. The Lover’s Cups are not intended to replace the other forms of communication such as voice or text communication, but to add more emotional channels to the traditional communication and improve the quality of interconnections.”

After reading the above literature, I became interested in how designing for asynchronous, spontaneous and maybe non-verbal communication can impact the way we talk with families and friends living far apart.

Primary Research

For conducting research, I created research probes kit to gain new insights about communication dynamics in my family and potential needs for a new way of conversing. Cultural probes are developed by William Gaver, Tony Dunne, and 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. Through my probes, I aim 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 at the end.

The kit contains three activities: Sketch cards to draw moments that family members wished to share, an envelope to collect receipts, and a disposable camera to capture daily interactions.

The process of explaining the activities to research participants (my family members) was made through a video chat with all the members gathered around. First, I explained my thesis topic and how this form of research falls into the design process. Some hesitancy was shown when they were told to draw, but the participants seemed excited to document their daily activities with the provided artifacts. I’ll be gathering the kits when I visit home for the holidays and I plan to talk about the finished artifacts with all the participants together.

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.

After hearing about interviewees’ opinions on how difficult it is to form attachments to their virtual possessions(text messages, images, footages from video calls) from the remote communication, I became interested in how people value and create attachments to their physical possessions in regards to relationship building. In order to explore this inquiry, I’ve asked research participants(my families) to take photos of objects that are personally meaningful to them in regards to their relationship building.

The result was quite surprising to me that many of them sent either a photo of their mobile phones or computers. They felt that personal devices became a portal to connect to others and to build relationships for them. Another half of personal inventories were mostly objects that symbolize the relationships, such as wedding rings or wall displays at home.

After conducting semi-structured interviews and looking into personal inventories, I wanted to find a framework that might help me to organize all my findings and observations. I came across AEIOU framework from Universal Methods of Design book, developed by Mark Baskinger and Bruce Hanington. AEIOU is “a framework that guides designers in thinking through a problem or scenario from a variety of perspectives: activities, environments, interactions, objects, and users.” [5] Since my observations seemed to belong to these five categories, I used the framework to synthesize my research to find a design space.

From my research findings, I have determined opportunity areas that design can have valuable impacts on the remote communication.

Design Opportunities

1. Designing for asynchronous, spontaneous and maybe non-verbal communication can provide unique ways of communicating with families and friends living far apart

2. Materializing the archive of digital communication can offer more cherished meaning to one’s virtual possessions (i.e. providing more valuable portraits of their identity)

Potential Outcomes for My Thesis

  1. A product that can co-create a moment or memory together from a distance

What if there is a portal for families to create contents together asynchronously? Spontaneity and slowness can come in to build anticipation to contrast with “instant” messaging.

2. A device that can physically display digital conversations to create more valuable meaning to one’s virtual possessions

What if text messages or images can be displayed in a different way other than on your phone? Would that make you feel different about your communication? Or about yourself?

I’m excited to ideate on both ideas and share my sketches first with my family members to possibly co-create the final outcome and also share with a broader audience to get feedback.


  1. Russell Belk. 2010. “Sharing.” Journal of Consumer Research 36, 5: 715–734. http://doi.org/10.1086/612649
  2. Emilee Rader. 2009. “Yours, Mine and (Not) Ours: Social Influences on Group Information Repositories.” In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’09), 2095–2098. http://doi.org/10.1145/1518701.1519019
  3. Peesapati, S. Tejaswi, Victoria Schwanda, Johnathon Schultz, Matt Lepage, So-yae Jeong, and Dan Cosley. 2010. “Pensieve: Supporting Everyday Reminiscence.” In Proceedings of the 28th International Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems — CHI ’10, 2027. Atlanta, Georgia, USA: ACM Press. https://doi.org/10.1145/1753326.1753635.
  4. Chung, Hyemin, Chia-Hsun Jackie Lee, and Ted Selker. 2006. “Lover’s Cups: Drinking Interfaces as New Communication Channels.” In CHI ’06 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems — CHI EA ’06, 375. Montréal, Québec, Canada: ACM Press. https://doi.org/10.1145/1125451.1125532.
  5. Martin, Bella.Hanington, Bruce M. 2012. Universal methods of design :100 ways to research complex problems, develop innovative ideas, and design effective solutions Beverly, MA : Rockport Publishers.