Josh Clark //

Designing for Relationship

An illustration of overlapping circles creates new shapes with the phrase Designing for Relationship superimposed over them.

As the digital landscape and physical space we inhabit become more integrated with one another, the role of design becomes increasingly difficult. We live in an age where people are constantly connected to devices and the trend of wearables, beacons, and connected homes will only make digital connections more pervasive. As we move into the constantly connected future, we require new design thinking. Design for utility, emotion, and even connection is no longer enough. We must begin to intentionally design for relationships.

Design thinkers like Donald Norman and Dieter Rams proposed that the major concern of design was a product's function. For design to be functional it must allow the user to accomplish the set goal the device is purposed for. For example, a toaster that does not toast bread is more of a novelty than an effective kitchen tool. Function, efficiency and utility were, and continue to be some of the most formidable design characteristics.

In the late 2000’s another mantra took the design world by storm. In his book, Designing for Emotion, Aarron Walter advocates for Emotional Design, he says that judging something simply on its functional utility is a flawed baseline. It’s like being a chef and feeling the job is done when the food is edible. As design professionals there should be a higher level of concern than, “does it work?” Digital experiences should not simply be functional, but pleasurable. They should evoke emotional engagement and support patterns triggering positive emotional reaction. The designer does this by assuring that the product is functional, reliable and usable. More than that, designers should strive for delightful experiences.

The problem with emotional design is that more and more people are not just connected with systems, but systems are connecting users with other people. User Experience designers are not just creating software for Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), but Human-Human Interaction. We’re dreaming up digital ways for people to enhance their personal relationships. For better or worse, we live in a world where the physical spaces we inhabit are now digital spaces as well.

The problem is that people are multi-faceted and come with all sorts of relational baggage. Here’s an example. In 2003 I got my first mobile phone. My grandmother, who was a beautiful woman, would leave scathing voicemails for me when I didn't answer my phone while at work. She figured that I had the obligation to answer my phone if it rang, and since I had my phone on me all the time, I should answer my phone at anytime. We experienced relational disruption because of the change in the digital landscape i.e., phones are no longer tethered to physical locales.

That was a decade ago. Now I live in an age where connections are everywhere. If someone wants to get in contact, they can message on Facebook and that message is sent to my computer, email, phone and tablet all at once. I can't imagine how this access would have affected my relationship with my grandmother.

We are at a point where we have to re-evaluate our design philosophy. It’s no longer enough to design for emotion. We must design for relationships. That is to say, we must design experiences that help people relate well with one another.

Attempts to broach the topic of Relationship Design have often come under the guises of the term “social.” Conversations about social design, however, can be superficial at best. They center less around human relationships and more around connection, as if creating a pipeline from point A to point B is the same as creating meaningful human experiences. As designers we can do so much more to enhance relationships. We must elevate our craft from providing ways to connect, to facilitating healthy and meaningful relationships between people.

How do we design for relationships? How does the way in which we interact digitally create positive human relationships, like friendships, partnerships, family, co-workers, and even marriages? How does this world of ubiquitous connection make us more human, not less? Pulling from various fields, including social psychology, marriage and family counseling, and user experience, there are several areas we can focus on when designing. While I cannot attempt to establish patterns for each area in this blog post, I will acknowledge them and follow-up with each as a separate blog post in the future.

Create Healthy Boundaries

Major relationship deficiencies begin when the lines between one person and the other become blurred. The clinical term for this is enmeshment. In co-dependent relationships a person will feel like they are losing themselves to the needs and desires of another person. In the digital space, we aid enmeshment by degrading the ability for a person to create personal space, and clarify boundaries for themselves. And it is only getting worse as we become more connected.

Make Connection Management Easier

Let’s be honest: the beeps are killing us. We are pushers of interruptions, many of which are unnecessary, and unhelpful. In addition, we have relationships flying at us from 20 different angles. Email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, KiK, Skype, and Snapchat to name just a few. The amount of emotional energy taken from us managing connections impedes our ability to invest in relationships. Relationship design means optimizing connection management.

Support Positive Connection

We’ve all been there: some ignorant thing gets posted on the Internet and people get angry. Relationship Design forces us to focus not simply on viral content, but safe and meaningful relationship. Most arguments on the web are rooted in polarities. Relationship Design focuses on building opportunities for healthy dialogue and disagreement in hope of bringing people towards one another rather than reinforcing their differences.

Looking Forward

There are several other areas to focus on in Relationship Design, including the development of singular self-integration, creating opportunities for shared memory and reducing cognitive dissonance in relationships. In this series I'll be focusing on digital design patterns that help build stronger relationships for each area of focus above. In the words of Dr. Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park, “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” We’ve come to a watershed moment in digital design. We have to stop and ask ourselves, not only if we can build social experiences for our users, but what we should build to support excellent relationships. I look forward to sharing with you the ways we’re building relationships here at Concentric Sky.