Designing for Intimacy in A Tech Based Society

Two and a half years ago I met Koen. His wife just died of breast cancer after a long struggle against the disease. When we talked, we had the most wonderful conversations about his wife, how she loved horseback riding, late night dinner parties and playing the piano. However, this all changed when she was diagnosed with this severe illness.

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She couldn’t do those things she loved anymore. Horseback riding was physically impossible, just like playing the piano. Those late night dinner parties were just too intensive. That hurt Maria, but what hurt her most was that her friends sometimes made comments that she looked so well. Her friends thought that Maria was winning the struggle against her illness, while in fact Maria’s treatment was not catching on. She was slowly dying.

While I did research on the context of struggling with a severe illness I learned that we lose one fourth of our social environment when we are diagnosed with a severe illness. That is quite a lot, especially in the time that you need that social contact the most. It creates support, self esteem and makes the illness more bearable.

Quite frankly I was stunned by this. Because I have a technical background, I know there are many amazing technologies which change the world rapidly, especially in the way we communicate. But yet we cannot utilize these technologies to communicate about our thoughts, feelings and health.

The Necklace

It was after that experience I started to design for ‘intimate communication’. The Necklace became the first design in this genre. It is a piece of jewelry for breast cancer patients. After each important moment in your struggle against this illness you add a new link. By gently pushing a link of the necklace onto your skin it withdraws a small blood sample without any feeling of discomfort. This link then changes color based on your blood values. The deeper the color of the link the healthier you are. Such information infused decoration allows you to see, at any time of the day, how your recovery is progressing and lets you communicate it with your love ones whom you learned how to read The Necklace. In this way this unique piece of jewelry symbolizes your personal story.

Design for Debate

The interesting thing is that The Necklace is not an actual product, but a tangible and interactive future scenario about that our intimate communication could be like within the next ten years. This design is currently on tour with the Nano Supermarket, a traveling exhibition full of speculative products which could be realized within the next ten years with the help of nanotechnology. During this tour I got a lot of mixed comments; either people loved the design, or deeply hated it. They explained how it could have helped them in their disease, or how they would hate to give up their privacy.

Because it is a tangible, interactive and realistic design people can engage and experience it. They can actually talk about it how it would affect their lives, because it is there, right in front of them. This was exactly the point of the design. It was not designed to be a future product, but to be debated about. Through these comments I learned a lot on how people experience communication in the context of health and on how they see products influencing this communication. It is a design for debate.

User Experience

I believe that we need such realistically crafted future scenarios in order to investigate what we want our future to be like; specially in the case of ‘intimate communication’ via technology. We can than start to create new dimensions in the way we communicate via technology and become closer. The user experience of these scenarios is therefore very important. They either make or break the illusion, and therefore the discussion. This experience is needed in Design for Debate.

As Sherry Turkle, Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says: “Objects are carriers of experiences and emotions”. Designers can and should create those objects. The people who engage with the objects then are able to create the future.

Marco van Beers

Marco van Beers is a young, Eindhoven (NL) based, Industrial Designer. For several years he is investigating how we can use design and technology to support and facilitate 'Intimate Communication' (about thoughts, feelings and health). You can see his work at his website or you can follow him.

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