Kinda Human / Intimately

Dates: January 2019 to February 2019
Team: Scott Dombkowski
Advisors: Stacie Rohrbach and Molly Wright Steenson
Work Type: Academic

The first concept I designed was Intimately, an AI powered writing assistant intended to enhance one's capacity to express themselves to their intimate partner.

Intimately Concept Video


Intimately was designed to analyze messages based on effective communication practices and sometimes suggest an alternative. The concept was inspired by Grammarly, a popular online writing assistant designed to make an individual's "messages, documents, and social media posts clear, mistake-free, and impactful" (Grammarly, n.d.).

Intimately was designed as a standalone messaging app for communications between intimate partners. Similar to Facebook Messenger and other messaging platforms, a user would be able to communicate with a partner who has also downloaded Intimately, or with a partner sans Intimately through SMS messages.

Design Approach

While bringing form to Intimately, numerous aspects of the interaction were designed to ensure consistency throughout the experience.

  • Type of Language Intimately EmploysIntimately provides an intimate partner with alternatives and rationale that address both functional and dysfunctional communication patterns of intimate partners. This way a partner gains a more comprehensive understanding (i.e., both the positive and negative) of the language they employ.
  • The Need For Rationale Explaining an AlternativeIf Intimately finds an issue with a message, the agent provides a sentence or two to explain those issues and the reasons why the agent-developed alternative message could enable greater expression and understanding within that conversation. I believe this would help create a common understanding between the partner and the agent.

Intimately providing rationale for an alternative

  • The Look and Feel of the AppI made the decision for Intimately to look and feel like modern messaging platforms so that users would focus on the intelligence integrated within Intimately and not the UI of the app. This ideally enables Intimately to seamlessly integrate into a user's life.
  • The Look and Feel of Micro InteractionsI paid special attention to the moments where a user composes a message and Intimately evaluates that message against functional and dysfunctional communication patterns, so that those moments convey a sense of intelligence. I also placed focus on other micro interactions to replicate the look and feel of modern messaging platforms. Both actions were taken to help communicate the boundaries and capabilities of Intimately.

Send button micro-interaction

Delivery of Study

To test this concept, I created a website with an interactive choose your own adventure demo that enabled an individual to simulate a conversation with Intimately. This implementation was inspired by Black Mirror's 2018 interactive film, "Bandersnatch", and Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks.

To create the demo, I designed eight different paths a user can take. Approximately every 30 seconds, a user is given the opportunity to decide between two messages—one the fictional user has composed, and the other Intimately has suggested. Once the user chooses the message they would like to send, a new video begins playing (i.e., I used JavaScript to simulate this experience).

Viewers are given the opportunity to decide between two messages

Study Outcomes

User sentiment from both Mechanical Turk and user interviews was somewhat divided. While the majority of participants viewed Intimately as valuable, appealing, and empowering, others say it is inauthentic and judgmental. One user described it as a tool that could "help you think before you send something," while another described it as a tool to "see others viewpoints." At the other end of the spectrum, a user felt it "would prevent you from writing from your heart" or "could sanction a really poor thought." Other insights from these interviews include:

  • Intimately could evoke a confirmation bias if a couple is given the opportunity to select specific measures for detection.If the tool provides a user with enormous power in personalizing Intimately, a situation may arise where Intimately does not enhance the person's ability for expression and understanding, but instead confirms the patterns they already find themselves in when expressing themselves to their partner. This should be avoided so that users of Intimately enhance, instead of preserve, their capacity for expression.
  • Intimately could confront challenges affecting behavior change.For Intimately to affect behavior change, it should vary the delivery of the alternatives and rationale it provides. This approach may prevent users from finding the support stale, while also engaging with the tool in distinct ways that might be effective for that specific user. Providing a place for a user to reflect on the patterns within their communications may also play a significant role in affecting behavior change.
Concept Synthesis

Combining some aspects of the popular writing assistant tool, Grammarly, with effective communication practices for intimate couples, Intimately was able to explore an individual's comfort with an artificial agent's involvement, while also looking at the form in which those practices can be shared. The following is a list of principles gathered from Intimately's testing.

  • Intimately should support a diversity of conversations and contexts.Intimately should not limit itself to conversations dealing with conflict and can find purpose in other types of conversations. It should also support young couples, older couples, couples who have just begun dating, and couples who have been married for years. As a result, users may find Intimately broadly encompassing (i.e., not just focused on one certain type of conversation or just pointing out the negatives).
  • Intimately should allow for multiple forms of adjustment.Intimately should allow a user to reflect on a conversation and adjust the parameters and patterns it is seeking in a message. This way users are able to personalize the assistant based on the aspects of their communications that they want to study deeply, while also retaining their unique personality.
  • Intimately should provide a user the opportunity to dismiss a detected indiscretion.If a user finds that Intimately has been triggered based on a message the user sees no problem with, the user should be provided with an opportunity to note why they find no issue with that message. By doing this, users will be able to effectively communicate with Intimately, enabling them to achieve a higher degree of conversational symbiosis.
  • Intimately should afford numerous opportunities for reflection.A user should be given numerous opportunities to reflect on past conversations and, more specifically, the messages that have been influenced in some form by Intimately. This will give them the opportunity to analyze the patterns within their communications and the ways they have enhanced their capacity for expression and understanding.
  • Intimately should evolve its voice based on a couple and their communications.The language and strategies one individual or couple finds helpful may not be useful to every couple. As a result, Intimately should continuously work to determine the language and strategies that an individual or couple finds productive at specific times and places in their relationship so that individual or couples capacity for expression is continuously grown.
Unfavorable Directions

Storyboards depicting potentially unfavorable directions involving Intimately focused on the following developments.

  • A couple whose exchanges are entirely mediated through Intimately.
  • Intimately being biased towards certain gender norms.
Considerations for the Future

Two themes that arose from these storyboards were that of a lack of visibility into the system and the potential for bias in the system.

Bringing visibility into the system, whether through forms of reflection or small UI elements that let the receiver of a message know that their partner was using Intimately, is a topic that deserves consideration. If not, Intimately could enhance an intimate partner's capacity for expression, but also play a role in the deterioration of trust and commitment in that partner's relationship.

It is also important to consider that a person could extend a relationship longer than warranted. To avoid such instances, thought should be put into developing moments of reflection so that a person understands how their use of Intimately has affected their relationship. It will also be necessary for the models powering this app to be trained on data that is representative of all forms of communication styles.

An Iteration of Intimately

One comment I received about Intimately was that it took a very deterministic approach to supporting relationships. Users received one alternative and were then compelled to make a decision between two options, when in reality the options for what could be said are boundless.

An iteration of Intimately that could address this issue may provide different amounts of guidance based on the amount of time a user contemplates the message in question. For example, a user might open Intimately and see a message from their partner. If that user immediately responds to that message, Intimately would remain in the background, passively analyzing the conversation. If instead, Intimately finds that the partner is deliberating over the message (i.e., continuously revising the message, typing something and looking at the message for 30 seconds before typing something else), Intimately would take an active approach. But instead of providing an alternative it would provide counsel related to that message and the larger context of that conversation.

An iteration of Intimately that provides different amounts of guidance based on the amount of time a user contemplates a message