Couple Cards

Cultivating closeness & intimacy in couples using embodied cognition embedded in a boardgame

Context      CMU Course, Persuasive Design
Timeline     3 month, October to December 2017
Team           Lisa Park, Brandon Zepeda


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Healthy Relationships start with a Strong Foundation

According to Gottman’s ‘Sound Relationship House Theory’, building a long lasting relationship starts with two main ongoing parts: knowing and understanding your partner and sharing fondness and admiration. These stages in the theory serve as a foundation to prevent harmful behaviors to the couple's relationship, such as frequent conflict and arguments, poor communication, emotional distance, and more.

With an interest romantic relationships, my team and I were challenged to come up with a design that encorporates persusive techniques to encourage and nurture healthier behaviors in couples.


How might we leverage persuasive techniques to cultivate intimacy and closeness between individuals in romantic relationships? 


A Card-Based Game for Couples that uses Embodied Cognition

Couple Cards is a whimsical card game for couples aimed at bringing individuals closer to their romantic partners. The objective is for the couple to work cooperatively to win (or lose) against other couples by accomplishing four challenges before the other couples do.

Persuasive techniques are embedded into the four collaborative challenges to engage couples in Holding, Hugging, Sharing, and Talking. These tasks require couples to interact physically, use their shared couples jargon/language, and reminiscence in their personal experiences.


Embodied Cognition

Embodied Cognition is embedded in the 'holding', 'hugging', and 'sharing' tasks. These challenge the couple to do perform tasks while physically acting as one, either by holding hands or hugging. For example, one of the holding tasks has the couple fold a paper airplane while holding hands. 

Embodied Cognition is a theory that suggests perceptual information we’re exposed to is also responsible for our thoughts and behaviors. 

Embodied Cognition is embedded in the 'holding', 'hugging', and 'sharing' tasks. These challenge the couple to do perform tasks while physically acting as one, either by holding hands or hugging. For example, one of the holding tasks has the couple fold a paper airplane while holding hands. 

Embodied Cognition is a theory that suggests perceptual information we’re exposed to is also responsible for our thoughts and behaviors. 


Priming Words

Priming is embedded in the 'talking' tasks. This task type has one of the partners explain a word to their partner without using the restricted words. The words have been chosen to activate thought of closeness and intimacy.

Priming is an implicit persuasion technique that suggests being exposed to a stimulus activates its associated schemas and influences behaviors.


Personal Memories

In addition to utilizing embodied cognition,  the 'sharing' tasks challenge the couple to reminisce on some of their fondest shared experiences (like their favorite restaurant or their first date) by asking one partner to communicate them to the other partner through drawings.

Using the couple's memories allows the game to be personalized for every couple. 

Potential to Expand to a Suite of Games

At the end of the semseter, we pitched our idea to the class and we received a lot of positive feedback. While Couple Cards focuses on enhancing intimacy and closeness in romantic relationships, there was interest in opening the game up to including other people to see how that effects the dynamics of the game and possibly encourage bonding in other relationships. 

For example, including a "Third-Wheel" Expansion for single-friends or "Family" Expansion for family members that would want to join in. These players would have different objectives the 'couple' players in the game. 



How we Arrived at a Persuasive Game Approach

The process to design this game consisted of four major phases (Research, Focus SettingConcept Generation, and Testing & Iteration). Throughout the semester, we pivoted once or twice to land on our final focus and design direction.

To name some of our most notable activities we did to arrive at our solution: literature review, expert interviews, contextual observation, storyboarding & speed dating, prototype design, and game testing to iterate. Below I highlight these activities in more detail.


Observing Conflicts between Couples Online and Offline

At the beginning of our project, we were tasked with choosing a space we were interested in. We chose to focus on the conflict in romantic relationships because we were really interested how we could use persuasive techniques to promote healthy conflict resolution between partners.

To understand our gaps in knowledge, we created an ecosystem map and then conducted informal observations to fill in some gaps. We wanted to understand what couples usually argue about, what are common behaviors, and how they go about solving conflicts. 

In addition to our initial research, we also interviewed a couples therapist to pick his brain on current frameworks for conflict resolutions and his thoughts on couple's conflicts. He handed us many resources, one of which led us to Gottman's work on relationship therapy. 

Using his insights and resources as a springboard, we did some secondary research to understand more around what behaviors we should be promoting and when is the best time to intercept couples in conflict.  


Major Insights from Research

Conflict Response vs. "Maintenance"
Couples who build a strong foundation and maintain healthy behaviours everyday tend to have healthier confilct resolution behaviors than those who overlook the 'small things'. 

Conflict Management vs. Couple Conflict
Mediation is very different than advising couples in conflict. Couples are looking at how they can grow together after the conflict, whereas mediation is a one-and-done deal. 

Various Conflict Communication Styles
In couples, there are various ways in which individuals communicate negatively in conflict: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. 


Understanding Design Opportunities and Focus Setting

From our initial research, we found there were many ways we could approach helping couples with conflict management. In order to get a focus, we brainstormed opportunities for design. To think through this we split the brainstorming out into two sections:

1. Behaviors to Promote or Encourage

We found there were many behaviors associated with managing conflict within couples. To narrow in a bit more, we came up with a comprehensive list of all the behaviors we could attempt to persuade. Amongst those behaviors were encouraging partners to: 

  • Turn towards bids (positive attention giving behaviors) 
  • Use healthy communication (active listening, I-statements)
  • Build a strong foundation (Sound Relationship House) 

2. Possible Mediums to Use

Another aspect we had to consider was what form we wanted out intervention to take. To explore this we listed out all the ways we were interested in exploring, some of the top contenders were: 

  • Embedded Game Design, either digital or physical
  • Wearable, possibly paired with an app
  • Ambient Environmental Devices 

Considering the Opportunities and Looking at Precedents

We then took some time to do some competitive research and look into precedents that exist within the same space. We explored multiple mediums that existed in analogous domains.  View the slides to the left to see some of the examples we found and explored. 

Design Direction Opportunities

Encouraging Better Communication
How might we help couples better communicate their emotions and moods to prevent unintentional conflict caused by misunderstanding? 

Diffusing Heated Arguments
How might we de-escalate arguments that spin out of control by using nudges to increase awareness of unproductive conflict management? 

Building Strong Relationship Foundations
How might we help couples build stronger connections as a way to proactively address and maintain their relationship before heated and difficult conflict?  


Testing Intial Designs: Encourage Better Communication

At first, we chose to design with the goal of encouraging better communication between partners. Our hypothesis when was that couples get into conflict because they are unaware of what their partner is feeling. To explore this we brainstormed and created storyboards of four different wearable and ambient device designs that aimed to help couples better communicate their moods. We then tested the concepts by speed dating with five different partners. 

We had some interesting insights (see below) which eventually led to pivot to another idea.

Main Takeaways from Prototype 1

There's a desire for open communication.
"I want my partner to tell me if they feel a certain way, not my phone or some other technology."

Individuals want emotional privacy. 
"I don't always know what I'm feeling. Sometimes I feel a certain way, and my boyfriend doesn't need to know."

Negative emotions are hard to approach.
"If we're both in a great mood, it's easy to share openly. But when it's one or the other, or we're both upset [especially about each other], we're more closed off.

Design Pivot: Using a Game as a Persuasive Vehicle

After the strong feedback we from our first ideas, we decided to pivot away from technology in 'real world' context to a persuasive gameWe found that using an intervention during and around conflict is touchy and unpredictable from one couple to the next.

Our first game idea was a story-telling game to create fake conflict between two partners through a story while teaching couples about bad and good conflict behaviors. After 3 concept playtests, we found creating fake conflict wasn't fun or effective towards our goal of bringing couples closer together.

Our final pivot let us to the final concept of "Couple Cards". We thought of intermixing different collaborative tasks with informational cards of conflict management knowledge. We did internal concept playtests, and decided to move foward and iterate on this direction!

Playtest Research Questions

Are the tasks easy to understand and enjoyable for all the players involved?

Is the game balanced between partners? Is the game balanced between 'teams'? 

How easy / difficult is the game to win or lose? Do players seem engaged during gameplay? 


Playtesting to Refine the Gameplay

To refine couple cards, we went through three rounds of user testing with eight different couples to land on the design version four.  For each test, we observed gameplay and made rapid revisions to rules and mechanics to better on the elements of playability, balance, and flow. The biggest changes to the game were: 

  • Task Categories: Categories were streamlined and made consistent as a response to confusion during game play. 
  • Game Board: Adding a physical game board allowed for visual indication of each couple's progress.
  • Individual Tasks: Tasks were evaluated by testers based on enjoyability. Certain tasks were removed or adapted to increase amount of fun!

Creating the "Couple Cards" Brand and Visual Aesthetics 

To add a level of polish to the final game design, we created simple, fun branding for the game. It features four bold colors paired and simple sans-serif font. We updated the look of the cards and game board to create a cohesive designed game along with a rule card and cheat sheet for easy game onboarding.

Testing Version


Final Designed Version


Continue with Playtests and Make it Public!

We were really pleased with the direction the project went by the end, especially after having pivotted a handful of times. While we really enjoyed the outcome, we still felt there was tons we could do to continue building upon the game! 

Given more time, we would love to continue playtests to continue to improve the game. Some aspects we'd love to test are task time limits, a different iteration of the 'sharing' tasks, and adding more group challenges. Another endevour we would love to take on is making the game public online to build a grassroots community around it and see if we could make it onto Kickstarter! 

"I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story." - Sylvia Plath