IxD17 Talk / Final Destination: Creating a better afterlife for our digital treasures.

It's official! I will be speaking at next year's Interaction Design Conference in NYC! I'm very humbled and honored to be given this opportunity. This is a topic that has been very near and dear to my heart for quite sometime now. This talk will be a culmination of several years of thinking, writing, observing and reflection - particularly with the recent loss of my brother-in-law, Eli. I'll be continuing a series of personal interviews and workshops to inform the content of this talk. If you are interested in participating, please email me at say@hellostranger.us

Talk abstract

Products have a perspective problem. Their view of a user’s journey is too narrow and fails to account for one of the most basic human qualities of their customers - mortality.

Many digital services that generate personal content and data provide, at best, deactivation and/or memorialization options. This approach addresses profile access control or removal but neglects needs surrounding content collection, preservation and inheritance. People increasingly view their digital content as valuable heirlooms, serving as rich records of their life’s experiences to be shared beyond their lifetime. In reality, friends and family of deceased customers are left with little or no options to retrieve these heirlooms in any meaningful way. The result is large amounts of rich, personal and emotionally significant content left to float in a digital purgatory, just out of reach to those who treasure it most.

Products that sit within highly personal and social spaces have an obligation to their customer community to address these needs. This talk will present a framework and set of guiding principles for supporting this underserved, yet important, phase of a product’s user experience.


Whom is this talk relevant to?

Anyone creating or managing products in which personal content is generated through their use and considered valuable by customers. These include, but not limited to, social networks, media creation and management services, health records, family ancestry tools and genetic mapping services.

  • Product designers and teams interested in addressing end-of-life needs and considerations within their product’s user experience.

  • UX Designers seeking to provide more proactive, meaningful and empathetic solutions that better serve end of life transition points.

  • Entrepreneurs and business managers seeking to differentiate their products by incorporating empathetic and considerate solutions beyond basic profile memorialization.

  • Analytics / Data Scientists seeking guidance on how to proactively structure data to support better life status transitions.


What are three takeaways you can expect to walk away with?

  • A view of the product experience journey that goes beyond one life.

  • Guiding principles and considerations when designing pre- and post-life touch points that service content access, preservation and distribution.

  • Benefits of integrating “whole life” perspective into your product’s user experience.  

The Continuity Problem

Products have a perspective problem. Their view of a user’s journey is too narrow and fails to account for the fact that our engagement with them is starting earlier and increasingly, lasts until we die.

According to a 2014 survey conducted by Gerber, close to 40 percent of moms aged 18 to 34 created social media accounts for their baby before the child’s first birthday — and another 7 percent made one before their kid’s second birthday. And according to statistics related to growth of deaths on Facebook, the worldwide total is in the millions as of 2013. In just seven years, this death rate will double, and in seven more years it will double again. The deaths per year will continue to grow for many decades, as the generation who was in college between 2000 and 2020 grows older.

The challenge this trend presents is that the continuity of content isn't possible. The current design is modeled off a user journey in which there is a single, isolated user who begins and ends their own account. As people start their 'life' on Facebook (or other social networks) earlier, this model breaks because it doesn't support the ability to transfer ownership or content as the person comes of age. The same happens when the individual dies. 

Social network services generate rich personal content that people increasingly view as invaluable records of their life experiences. If parents are creating profiles for their children, this process starts outside the control of the individual. When that person dies, these services provide, at best, profile deactivation or memorial options. While this supports access control or removal it leaves us with little ability to collect, preserve and pass on these valuable heirlooms to our relatives in any meaningful way. Instead we are left with significant parts of our personal heritage floating in a digital purgatory, just out of reach to those who treasure it most.

I believe highly personal and social products have an obligation to address their users’ needs related to preserving and passing on their digital content after death. I'm currently working on defining a framework for the user journey that incorporates this 'whole life' perspective. As longer swaths our lives are entangled in digital spaces, products will need to take a longer view of the user journey and support life-related transition points.


Digital Ghosts Pt. 1

Digital Ghosts is an ongoing speculative design project exploring the potential commodification of data left behind by deceased users. The goal is to provoke public debate of the moral and ethical responsibilities of businesses, designers and entrepreneurs regarding the access, management and use of customer data ‘after life’. 


Speculation No. 1

Today, many people experience the continued presence of deceased users, often inadvertently, within socially-oriented products and services. Most of us see this as ‘unintentional’ and often dismiss and forgive it on the basis of ‘Well, it’s just because the algorithms don’t know any better.’

As we start to address these algorithmic ignorances, products and services will know better. Yet, what should be done with the profiles, data and content of deceased users continues to go unaddressed in the design of them. What would it look like if market forces answered this question for us? Would the values of the market align with our own values? History has shown us that the answer to this is often no. 

If market forces valued driving customer engagement over say, emotional senstivity and courtesy - what would this experience be like for us? How would this make us feel? The fictional products shown below intentionally utilize deceased user data within their recommendation algorithms. Encounters with of these ‘digital ghosts’ are no longer accidental. They are intentional, wrapping content within a hyper-emotional frame aimed to tug at our very fundamental human desire to reconnect with those we’ve lost. 

Listening history and geo-location data of your deceased connections are used to generate and push recommendations to you. Whenever you pass a location in which the deceased had been listening, a selection associated from that location is sent to you as a personalized recommendation. 

Points of Interest
Locations in which you'd previously checked in with a now deceased connection are highlighted as ‘memorial points’ in your map view.

Favorites from deceased connections are recommended alongside the hottest new restaurants as opportunities to re-live times you’d had with them.  

Rites of passage

"a treatment of mourning rituals which acknowledges the problematic nature of discrete beginnings and endings also assumes there is never a full restoration of social stability; that death, its representation, its discourses, and its performative elaboration can haunt society and become an essential collective metaphor of social experience beyond the margins of ceremonial performance." (Serematakis, 1991:48)

Rites of passage function to symbolically mark bodily changes and shifts in social identity (and role) of the deceased. Mortuary rituals seek to:
- Resolve the ambiguities in social relations that death presents.  
- Mitigate the uncomfortable transformation of the living body to a corpse.

1. Resolve the ambiguities in social relations that death presents.

How do social networks disrupt this process given social profiles of the deceased often carry the illusion of the person still being "alive".

2. Mitigate the uncomfortable transformation of the living body to a corpse.

Will the digital data we leave behind after death, at some point, be deep enough to replace the lost physical body.