The ‘User Experience’ of Death & Dying

Posted by jgro in Articles, Projects

We’ve taken on an interesting project. It’s a Web site redesign, and some other UX and software design tasks for a funeral home and cemetery. It’s one of the few independent organizations of its type in the Chicago area, and it has really forced me to come to grips with two things that just don’t go together too often in my experience: Death and the Web.

Most of my exposure to this pair has been with online obituaries provided by the digital editions of major newspapers, at the unfortunate demise of a friend or loved one. These are generally simple, effective uses of the “Guestbook” design pattern, one of the earlier forms of HTML-based social software that emerged on the Web. Whenever I did sign one of these, it was only because I couldn’t be present at the service, attend the wake, or sit shiva.

My personal feeling has been that death and dying are things best left to the analog world. They are personal, emotional subjects, and should be discussed and dealt with in person.

What emerges, at least out of our initial understanding, admittedly incomplete, is much more complex and sometimes surprising.

In short, it appears that people expect the same level of user experience around death and dying, as they would for any other intimate service-related user experience online.

There’s a clear expectation that information about funeral services—a specific person’s service—is available online. There’s a marked lack of squeamishness. There’s an appreciation for the convenience that e-mail and the Web provide for certain long-term, cyclical and recurring tasks associated with dead people. These tasks include unveilings, visitations, death anniversaries, and the placement of blankets and flowers on graves.

I have to admit it was somewhat strange to hear the same sorts of words used to describe the convenience of online banking with these kinds of tasks, but perhaps that’s a good thing.

Every culture has different perspectives on death. U.S. culture has more of an avoidance/anxiety response than some others. Steve Portigal mentioned to me the other day how surprised he was to be shown pictures of the deathbed of a research participant’s relative, as a total stranger, in the first few minute of the interview. During the time I lived in Tokyo, it became clear to me that Japanese culture treats death and dying with less fear and more acceptance, generally speaking.

Maybe there’s something to the notion that moving certain topics to the digital realm makes them easier to discuss and integrate into daily lived experience.

We’ll continue to explore this idea as the project continues.