Design for Loss

Wan Jou She (Lavender)
PhD project
February 2013 - February 2017

Project Team:

• Wan Jou She: PhD candidate –

• Pieter Desmet: Promoter, professor –

• Rick Schifferstein: Daily supervisor, associate professor –



Relationship loss is a general term that denotes all possible ways in which an individual experiences the loss of some valued relationship with another person. This loss can have a wide variety of causes, such as death, breakup, or any other kind of separation, and can be either sudden or the result of an extensive process. It is a fundamental life experience that can have an important impact on an individual’s sense of security and identity. At the same time, the experience of relationship loss is inevitable because all human beings are confronted with this kind of loss in the course of their lives. Besides being inevitable, the process of coping with loss is highly individual because people differ strongly in terms of how they experience loss and in terms of the strategies they use to cope with their loss. Moreover, the phenomenon of relationship loss is very diverse. Compare, for example, the loss of a spouse after a lengthy divorce with the sudden loss of a loved one in a tragic accident. Even though both are examples of relationship loss, they will most probably differ strongly in terms of experiences and coping processes.

Scholars from various disciplines have studied the loss phenomenon, often with the aim to develop strategies to support loss coping processes. In the design field, relationship loss is relatively less explored. Although in the domain of human-computer interaction, some initial studies have explored how interactive technology can be designed to support those who suffer from losing loved ones through death and breakup (Massimi & Baecker, 2011; Massimi & Charise, 2009; Odom, Harper, Sellen, Kirk, & Banks, 2010; Sas & Whittaker, 2013), a general understanding of how design can support those who experience relationship loss is currently lacking. We are therefore interested in the questions if and how design can support those who suffer from relationship loss. The main underlying proposition is that even though design cannot solve the loss problem at hand (i.e. the loss is a given fact), it can potentially support people in their loss coping processes.

Relationship loss

Humans have a deep-rooted tendency to establish close relationships. Examples are romantic relationships (Hazan & Shaver, 1987), family relationships with parents, children or siblings (Bowlby, 1976), friendship relationships with fellows and classmates, and even human-animal relationships, like the ones people have with their pets. Several authors have provided functional explanations for the human tendency to form these relationships. An often proposed explanation is that having relationships supports our chances of survival and enhances our subjective wellbeing by providing social and physical safety (Bowlby, 2005; Takahashi, 2005; Waters & Cummings, 2000). This view is based on the idea that security and safety are fundamental human needs and that their fulfillment is required in order to be able to explore and develop. In addition, basic need theorists generally acknowledge the need to have relationships as a direct basic need in itself. Maslow (1943), for example, included ‘love and belonging’ (including friendship, family and sexual intimacy) in his famous hierarchy of five basic human needs (Maslow, 1943), and, more recently, Ford and Nichols (1987) included ‘belonging’ in their overview of basic human goals (for a review, see Chulef, 2001)

As much as relationships fulfill basic human needs, they can be disrupted, both intentionally or non-intentionally. A person-person relationship can be discontinued by the initiative of one of the two people involved, by the initiative of both, or by some other (foreseen or unforeseen) external factor. The effects of the resulting relationship loss can be pervasive because it confronts one (or both parties) with the breakdown of the supportive and protective functions of the relationship. As a consequence, relationship loss can result in deep personal grief and can be detrimental to a person’s psychological and physical health (Bowlby, 1976; Hofer, 1984; Shear & Shair, 2005).

Research Objectives and Research Questions

The main goal for the study is to facilitate loss coping process with design approach, and to further enhance human resilience ability to loss. Based on the two phases of loss situation, the research questions are defined as below:

1.What is the role design currently plays in loss situation?

2.Can designers contribute to loss situations and loss experiences?

2a. how can design facilitate loss coping?

2b. how can design facilitate loss resilience?



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