How can technology help people in long-distance relationships?

I’m currently in grad school at Carnegie Mellon University. After suffering from a bit of boredom in my first semester of classes, I decided to start a project with some fellow students.

Pitching ideas

After pitching several ideas to fellow students, the one that gained the most traction was the one answering the question “If there was a piece of technology that could help people in long distance relationships, what would it look like?” I think this problem really intrigued people since nearly half of our program cohort are in long distance relationships, so the need for more work in this area was incredibly obvious.

Since everyone was already super busy and stressed with other things, my goal was to make this as relaxing and fun as possible, so all meetings were to happen over coffee on a Friday at Tazza D’Oro cafe in the Bill Gates Center at CMU.

Of the five people I invited, two showed up to the first meeting (Radha and Morgan). Here’s what we talked about.

What are we trying to solve?

The nexus of our discussion was just in clarifying what we were attempting to solve. Is it just communication between partners? Is it trying to bolster their intimate connection? Is it a time scheduling issue of planning when to remotely interact?

What are we trying to achieve?

The roadmap for how the project will unfold is: go through the design process together as a group. Do interviews, build an affinity, see what the problems really look like, come up with design ideas from those problems.

After that’s done, we’ll compare those design ideas to what is currently on the market. If it’s identical to what is already out there, then we’ll stop. If it doesn’t exist yet, we’ll keep going on with the project.

Comparing past in-person interactions to current long-distance interactions

One of the ways in which I want to research this problem is in creating a roadmap of how a couple’s day-to-day interactions when they were in the same location maps out to what their current day-to-day interactions look like in their long-distance relationship. What are the interactions or qualities that aren’t present in their relationship anymore?

Developing interview questions for long-distance couples

The first difficult task our group has is developing an inventory of quality questions to dig at this problem space, and getting quality interview data. Can we trust couples’ responses of what their life was like before being long-distance? Do they still have an accurate memory of the intricate details of what it was like? Will they be biased in not admitting problems exist in their relationship and instead give us a rosy view of how their relationship has evolved since becoming long-distance?

Do we ask about sex?

The elephant in the room with developing interview questions is, how do we approach asking questions about their sex life? Although it surely feels icky to be asking them about those details, sex is such an important part of a romantic relationship I think it would be a grave mistake to not include it in our research process. After our group discussed the issue, we concluded about 30% of the questions would need to be about sex. So, how do we ask those questions exactly?

One idea I have for how to approach this came from an interview I recently watched with Andréa Mallard, Chief Marketing Officer at now Athleta.

Starting at 19:30 into the video, she talks about user interviews she conducted while at IDEO.

“You’re never going to get someone’s real opinion when they’re sitting around a white table in this horrible sterile environment with someone who is reading off a clipboard …”
“We held what I called an “unfocus group”. I knew I really wanted to get some insights from these women that are honest, that are not something you could find on a quant survey. So we held a cocktail hour essentially at an IDEO studio.
I got everybody drunk, I said it was a party, like we’re just here to have a good time. I drank with everyone. I wanted them to feel relaxed and comfortable. And I didn’t ask any questions in the first hour because I knew it was going to take at least that long for people to forget there was cameras, forget they were at a focus group. And to just start having a good time. I had a list of questions, much like you have. It was not overly prescriptive, it was a general sense of what I wanted to learn and I had let the women lead the conversation for me.
By the end of the night we had women crying, we had them arguing with each other, we had them laughing, I mean we had them telling me something that was actually true about how they felt about their skin and what they needed from a company. And there’s no way I would have ever gotten that in a traditional remove bias focus group.”

This seemed exactly like the situation I’m in with asking people about all the messy details of their long distance relationship. The white table and clipboard were not going to work. So I’ve decided to do my first round of interviews with people over drinks.

The first interviews are scheduled for this weekend. We’ll see how it goes…

[Stay tuned for more updates | Last updated Wednesday September 27th]