Building Connections Within Relationships:
The Stories of Mundane Technologies

In order to better understand the world of mundane technologies, and the way in which people interact with artifacts and space, I conducted a diary study. I gave participants a physical notebook and asked them to log their actions and observations with objects and environments over the course of several days. I encouraged the participants to record anything that they found interesting, as well as any reactions that they had while interacting with the technology and artifacts in their life. 

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Initial research questions

1. What is the relationship between mundane technologies and notions of space and place?
2. How do mundane technologies influence routine?
3. How do people maintain a sense of community with technology?

 

USER PROFILES

Twelve Participants: Ages 24-57, in several American cities. For each user, I developed a more detailed profile. I'll focus on one user here, Sarah, to show the kinds of data I collected for each participant. *Names have been changed.

Lifestyle: Sarah recorded diary entires over the course of three weekdays (Wednesday-Friday) and she led a very similar routine each day. She wakes around 7:15, and often has breakfast in bed, while doing work in the mornings (such as reading on her laptop, while in bed). She heads to class or work later in the morning, and spends much of her day either at school or her job. She comes home in the evening and often spends time with her girlfriend, doing things around the house, such as watching the Olympics and making dinner. 

Values: Sarah really values her relationship with her partner (Beth). They seem to be very close (in fact, Beth accompanied Sarah when she dropped off the notebook for me). Beth is mentioned in many of the diary entires, and she also came up several times during our interview. It is also clear that Sarah really values her education. She has applied to PhD programs, and mentioned the applications during our interview. In several entries she referred not only to class, but to “ideas” “learning” and “conversation” as things that are important to her. 

Habits: Sarah leads a fairly routine life. Though her entries were limited to workdays, it is clear that she has many habits, such as applying make-up (in a fairly regimented way) each morning. Her actions during class seem to be fairly consistent, such as taking notes, reading on PDFs (as opposed to paper) and chatting with Beth. The fact that she chats with Beth at almost all times of the day, even during class, indicate that they are very close and stay in near-constant contact. 

 

Artifact Profile

In order to create a cohesive sense of what technologies each participant used, and in what contexts, I created a visualization for each user to capture this data. This is Sarah's artifact profile:

Conclusions that can be drawn from this constellation of artifacts:

1. Technology plays a constant role in Sarah's life. Wherever she is—home, work, or school—she is connected to technology in some way, usually via phone or laptop. She utilizes technology from the moment she wakes up until the moment she goes to bed. She mentioned that she keeps her phone and laptop plugged in on her nightstand, so she can literally reach it first thing in the morning, and last thing at night. 

2. Google Chat is a primary mode of interaction for her, especially with her partner, Beth. When I asked her about her various modes of conversation, she said that she feels uncomfortable talking on the phone, and really only talks to her parents on the phone. She feels more comfortable talking via chat, or face-to-face. 

3. Most of the technology that Sarah interacts with is digital. The most interesting outlier, was an entry about massage stones. She writes, “The stones seems like really simple technology, but they are amazing. They are so smooth, wide enough to comfortably wrap your hand around and hold temperature really well. Massaging also makes me think of the body as a machine—gotta have all the parts aligned for it to work properly…but I suspect that is just because it’s the default cultural metaphor.” This was one of the only non-digital artifacts that Sarah mentioned, and interestingly, it was also connected to an interaction with Beth. 

4. Constant use of Box and Google Docs. The two pieces of technology that span all three of her major spaces are Box and Google Docs—she accesses homework and class readings via these tools, and mentioned during the interview that she would have a hard time keeping track of her research without these tools.   

 

DAILY ROUTINES

Sarah uses a variety of mundane technologies in her daily routine. She uses her phone as an alarm clock each morning. She reads class assignments via PDFs, and prefers them to paper-based readings (because she prefers the ability to annotate and search for certain words and phrases). She regularly accesses Twitter, Feedly, Netflix, and Instagram. She is a regular tea-drinker and mentioned that she makes 2-3 cups of tea per day. Most of these technologies seamlessly integrate into her routine and the various spaces she inhabits. Few of her entries mentioned a time when technology was a disruptive force in her life. She seems to be used to adapting when she needs to. For example, she mentioned that her laptop battery is old and doesn’t have much life left, so in class or at home she is always near an outlet.    

SOCIAL CONNECTIONS

The most important finding of this study was the interaction Sarah had with her partner Beth; this was infused through almost all of her entries. Although I began this study with the intention of learning about how technology helps people maintain a sense of community, I found that Sarah didn’t interact with a “community” per se, but rather used technology to interact with one specific person. If she is not talking to Beth face-to-face, she is likely to be chatting with her via g-chat. 

Sarah says that when she is in class, she will “occasionally chat with Beth who is in the class and sitting next to me, which might be awkward, but probably less awkward than me saying everything I think of out loud in class. I’m not very good at filtering and I also think very dialogically, so being able to talk something out really helps me to process the materials/ideas.”

Place and Space

Regarding issues of place and space, one of Sarah's longest entries was about a time at work, where she described the workspace. She writes, “This barrier [row of computers] is also relevant to how it feels working there. Since the desk floats in the middle of the room, people can and do walk behind me. This is a very physically vulnerable position while also very surveillance-y position. After working there all day, I like to decompress under blanket covers, completely closing off spatial access to the world around me in order to reset after so much exposure.” 

This is an important thing to note because she makes a distinction between work and home. Although it’s clear that technology runs through all aspects of her life, there are indeed times when she wants to disconnect and “decompress under blankets” at home. 

Building Connections Within Relationships

One of the defining characteristics of social media is that it assumes a one-to-many kind of interaction. When you post to Facebook or Twitter, you are broadcasting to a wide, pre-existing community. On the other side of the spectrum, digital tools that help people to meet new people, such as OKCupid or MeetUp, allow you to interact one-on-one, with the hopes of meeting a new person, or finding a new social group. Strangely, there are few apps devoted to the committed couple. But, I suspect that this is all about to change. 

In a recent piece for New York Magazine called “Why Don’t We Have a Monogamy App?” Ann Friedman writes, “Tech entrepreneurs, long obsessed with making apps to help you find a relationship, have now begun trying to solve the problem of staying happy in one.”

There are a handful of startups (such as Avocado, Couple, Delightful, and Between) that are developing apps that help couples stay in touch, without utilizing public-facing social media. In this article, Friedman goes on to write, “An impressive 74 percent of couples say the internet has had a positive impact on their relationship, according to new research from Pew.” All of which is to say, I’m not the first person to spot this trend. Sarah and Beth provide an ideal representation of the super-connected, twenty-something couple, and this diary study provides a number of design implications when thinking within the context of the Internet of Things.

THE INTERNET OF THINGS

What can we learn from Sarah and Beth about the next generation of mundane technologies? There are two major trends that I see:

1. New social media apps will become much more private and limited. The first generation of social media was designed to build large communities and share ideas across the internet as widely as possible. This has created a culture of “liking” and “sharing” that results in spreading information far and wide across the internet. Though I don’t see this kind of activity ending anytime soon, I do think a new range of applications will support the ability to share within a very limited circle of friends (Path already does this) as well as within one-on-one relationships. This is important because there are moments that couples may want to share digitally, but may not want to share with their larger group of friends. 

2. Devices will adapt to selective connection.  Instead of connecting to an entire network, for example, a phone needs to be able to connect to another specific phone (e.g. your partner’s phone). Presumably as devices become more and more connected, people will want to be able to control which devices connect across their home, work, and other spaces they inhabit. Sarah and Beth share almost every moment and this kind of sharing could be greatly simplified as devices gain the ability to connect to one another. Although there are some (this researcher, for one) who prefer to keep much of their lives private, it is clear that some couples would benefit greatly from connecting their devices. Also, this would account for couples who do not live in the same home. If each partner spends time at the other’s home, both of their devices should be able to seamlessly connect across two homes.