Designing for Life...and Death

We design for the needs of human life. Products, services, apps, businesses, walkways, buildings, parks and more. It’s all designed for people. People who are alive. The problem is this: this is not good enough anymore.

When designing something, particularly anything in the digital realm, we must consider the user. We must consider their entire life span, which, no longer, stops at death.

Dremains (digital remains) are something we must consider as designers.

If we’re designing a social web app, for example, what happens after the user dies? Does their account remain? What’s the policy on notification of death? Do we accept an email from a family member or friend as proof? Or do we require more proof than that? These are just the very basic questions one needs to consider.

This is why it’s wonderful to be a designer today. Fifty years ago, this was not a design challenge. Hell, 25 years ago, this was not a design challenge. The internet, personal mobile devices and digital ‘things’ just did not exist.

It’s up to us as designers today to develop standards for how we deal with death in our online communities.

Why do we want to hide or delete our dead users? Did they not contribute to the community? Is our reaction to hide or delete their accounts because, gosh, they’re dead, and we’re scared of death? Do we hide dead people from history books that have contributed to our communities? Why is this somehow, different?

I’m of the belief that death is as much a part of the human experience as a birth or crying or laughing hysterically. Death, we regard as something to be hush-hush about, something to look away from. But why? It will happen to every living person, ever. To me, hiding it is just a really outdated practice. We now live in a world where we continue living on, online. Death does not really completely stop at physical death anymore. 

I’m throwing this out here because we need to discuss it. As a collective group, we need to determine what, if anything, should change in how we deal with death, digitally.

And, to throw another angle at this problem, we need to do it for liability reasons. You are opening your product/service/app/etc. up to lawsuits if you have no way of handling death. (Yes, really.)

One more angle to chew on: there's opportunity for monetization here. Imagine if Facebook sold a 'memory book' for $29.99 of your relatives posts and status updates and the like. It would arrive in your mailbox in a beautifully printed book. Do you know how many people would buy that? If only Facebook had that feature included. Consider this: approximately 50% of all deaths are memorialized in some way. Memorialization is big business in deathcare. Memorialization is things like an online guestbook or special jewelry that houses cremains of your loved one, or a headstone. In the USA, about 1.9 million people die every year, and that will increase by about 1% a year. At some point, there will be more dead people online than living people. Given population growth and the adoption of the web by our youngest generations, this will happen sooner than you think.

Let me ask you this: How do we gracefully handle the deaths of our users as designers? How do we do this in a way that is sustainable and reduces liability for all those involved?

And let me end with this: Is the way to ensure profitability of apps/services/products through memorialization?


This was covered by On The Grid! Here's a link to the podcast. Download Episode 23 | Most of the Internet is Deadto hear the discussion.