Doctoral Dissertation: Connecting Couples in Long-Distance Relationships – Towards Unconventional Computer-Mediated Emotional Communication Systems


The number of couples who find themselves in a long-distance relationship is increasing for a wide range of reasons. For example, the current outbreak of COVID-19 has kept numerous loved ones apart. M.Des. Hong Li argues that there is a gap between research-based knowledge of the needs of long-distance relationship couples and the practical solutions actually available for them. Her study contributes to bridging this gap by mediating emotional communication through unconventional user interfaces that use interaction solutions outside of the scope of their conventional use.

Li’s dissertation provides a topical outlook on a relatively understudied yet practically highly relevant facet of interpersonal communication. In her study, she sets out to question and challenge the narrow assumptions underlying the conventional use of technology and encourages envisioning the future possibilities of communication in the context of long-distance relationships (LDR).

There are a number of different types of LDRs. In general, LDRs can be categorised into three main types: long-distance friendship, long-distance family relationship, and long-distance romantic relationship. In light of this, Li’s findings may be generalised to help develop technology to support also other types of LDRs and other types of couples.

Human-computer interaction through design interventions

In her study, Li investigates the potential of design to translate research-based knowledge of the needs of LDR couples into practical solutions for them, and in collaboration with them.

– My dissertation showcases a spectrum of practices which can be seen as a first step towards mediating emotional communication for couples in LDRs using unconventional communication systems, Li explains.

Based on eight case studies in which design opportunities and design considerations were identified, Li’s findings comprise both theoretical and empirical insights into how couples in LDRs can be better supported by unconventional computer-mediated emotional communication systems. In contrast to prior work, Li promotes a participatory approach to design for LDRs in which potential future users are involved as co-designers throughout the design process.

Emphasis on emotional communication and customisability

Emotional communication is an important part of intimacy and constitutes one of the fundamental needs in close relationships.

– However, it has been noted that most available technologies currently focus on the transmission of explicit information, which neglects the emotional communication needed in intimate relationships, Li highlights.

In intimate relationships, the point of frequent exchange of messages should be emotional communication rather than just sharing explicit information. For instance, the ‘message seen’ feature provided by some mainstream communication channels could make the sender feel upset or angry at the recipient when the message was read but not responded to.

There has been a growing body of work on designing unconventional communication systems aimed at mediating emotional communication in LDRs in the field of human-computer interaction over the past decade. However, in her systematic literature review, Li found that the majority of the systems showed a lack of customisability.

– Every couple in an LDR has subjective love languages (e.g., inside jokes). Lifeless machines and standardised tools may fail to build the emotional connection needed by LDR couples, Li stresses.

Therefore, customisability is valued in the development of each prototype in her dissertation work, with a view to enabling a user-tailored approach to support subjective love languages.

Information on the defence

Hong Li’s dissertation “Connecting Couples in Long-Distance Relationships: Towards Unconventional Computer-Mediated Emotional Communication Systems” will be publicly examined with the permission of the Faculty of Art and Design of the University of Lapland on Friday 11 December 2020 at 13:00 in the Esko and Asko Hall (F-wing). The opponent is Prof. Dr. Susanne Boll from the University of Oldenburg and the custos is Prof. Dr. Jonna Häkkilä from the University of Lapland.

The public defence will be held in English.

The public defence can be followed online: https://connect.eoppimispalvelut.fi/vaitos

After the event, coffee will be served in the restaurant Felli (if the COVID-19 situation allows).

About the doctoral candidate

Hong Li has a multicultural and multidisciplinary background. She originally comes from China. She studied Japanese Business and Culture at Hokkaido University as a Japanese Government Scholarship student. She was awarded the Degree of Master of Design in Design for Services by the University of Dundee, UK.

At the University of Lapland, she has worked as a researcher in the Co-Stars Service Design Research Group, and as a project coordinator in the SmartCulTour – Smart Cultural Tourism as a Driver of Sustainable Development of European Regions – project.

Watch a video in which Hong Li presents her dissertation (in English): https://youtu.be/paaC8LKAsPM

More information

Hong Li
+358 44 474 4335

About the publication

Hong Li: “Connecting Couples in Long-Distance Relationships: Towards Unconventional Computer-Mediated Emotional Communication Systems”. Acta electronica Universitatis Lapponiensis 299, ISBN 978-952-337-241-2, ISSN 1796-6310, University of Lapland, Rovaniemi 2020.

Permanent link to the publication: http://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-952-337-241-2