TOCHI Issue 23:4 is now available on the ACM Digital Library.

This month’s TOCHI has an unusually rich and far-ranging set of contributions, some of which forced me to confront deep personal truths (more about that shortly, in this post).

And while there were several articles that piqued my curiosity, two in particular caught my editorial eye. The first of these is featured below, the second will appear shortly in a follow-up post.



Rituals of Letting Go: An Embodiment Perspective on Disposal Practices Informed by Grief Therapy

This article offers a great example of the rich insights that can be unpacked by a thorough qualitative analysis of an HCI design context—in this case, the challenges of loss and grief that we all must eventually confront, and which therefore may be the essence of the human condition itself.

This unique problem takes on some strange twists in this modern era, when many of the “possessions” representative of our loved ones who have passed on assume an online and digital, rather than physical, form. How can one confront such an overwhelming task—going through thousands of digital photos, or blog posts, or a Facebook timeline which may not even be under your direct control—in such circumstances?

Furthermore, one might naturally assume that one always wants to retain such digital possessions, whereas the reality is much more complicated. Indeed, to move on, what many people need is in fact a therapeutic way of letting go—an end-goal spectacularly ill-suited to the inflexible, binary, and non-embodied methods that computers and web services currently offer us for deleting digital objects (or massive collections thereof).

And I have to admit, this article really hit home because it represents a very deep, dark hole that I have fallen into myself: Kerrie, my first spouse, died at the tender age of 29, just as I was embarking on my career at Microsoft Research. As I tried to put my life back together, one problem I had to confront was what to do with my wife’s greeting, which may have been the only recording I had of Kerrie’s voice, on our voice mail. While I will leave the solution that I came up with to the reader’s imagination, I can assure you that hitting some Delete button is about as far as you can get from a satisfactory solution to such a dilemma, and indeed there are no easy answers.

Because people flattened by such events (which the authors astutely expand to encompass related circumstances such as stillbirth, separation and divorce, as well as death itself) are in no condition to participate in some focus group or contextual inquiry, the article takes the clever indirection of working with professional grief therapists, all of whom helped clients to prepare “rituals of letting go” so as to move on with their lives—a new life that by necessity could no longer could include their loved one.

And indeed, the problems faced and the type of rituals enacted depend strongly on such circumstances, leading to a vocabulary of action and intent that the authors characterize in a rich design space. The work also suggests many new design directions and possibilities for HCI and sustainable, full life-cycle design to help people divest themselves of emotionally charged digital possessions.

To riff on the novel direction of release-centric interactions suggested by the article, imagine, for example, a digital-photo locket explicitly designed for letting-go such that each time you choose to open it, it displays a photo (or a voice message…) of a loved one for the very last time; when you decide to close it, an embodied act, the echoes of the emotionally-charged digital artifact would drift away on a chill wind and be gone forever, allowing the survivor—if only symbolically, and in a small way—to move on.

The article is rich with provocative examples, situations, and design questions of this sort, and reading it may very well forever change how you think about the design of photo repositories, voice messages, texts, and other such digital possessions.


Corina Sas, Steve Whittaker, and John Zimmerman. 2016. Rituals of Letting Go: An Embodiment Perspective on Disposal Practices Informed by Grief Therapy. ACM Trans. Comput.-Hum. Interact. 23, 4, Article 21  (August 2016), 37 pages.