Design, Death and
exploring the state of technology's involvement with death
All solutions were required to incorporate machine learning technologies, sensors, and built environment.
Data Analysis and Coding
Pets play an important and integral role in many people's lives with 68% of U.S. households owning a pet according to the 2017 – 2018 National Pet Owners Survey. These pets are loved and cherished and as any pet owner or anyone that's been around a pet owner knows, a very popular topic of conversation. With that being said, there is one aspect to owning a pet that can still remain at least somewhat taboo to openly discuss with even the closest of friends and family members.
While we hear so much about the lives of pets, we don't often hear about their passing. Losing a pet can be both an extremely taxing and emotionally devastating experience. Despite this, as a society, it seems as if we don't often recognize how intense and painful the loss of a pet can be. Even though the feeling of losing a pet can be as great as losing a significant person in one's life, the grieving process is often quite different. The social norms and mechanisms that are in place for when a person passes are often lacking or non-existent for pets. Our project focused on exploring the challenges that long term pet owners face when their pet passes away and possible improvements that technology can provide on this matter.
So then we asked;
How might we help mitigate the grief felt by a pet owner after the death of their pet?
Participants & Recruitment
We have recruited 10 adult participants, whose ages ranged from 21 to 60 and they all have recently experienced losing a pet as we wanted to mitigate the impact of recall bias. I prepared and sent a screener to interested participants via Typeform to make sure that they have owned a pet for at least a few years and had to deal with their pet passing away. I also made sure that our participants were able to openly talk with us about their experiences, struggles, and challenges even though it is a sensitive topic by asking their consent in the screener.
"I still keep his toys around my house. They remind me of the fun times."
"My dog's food bowls.. I dont want to put them away yet. It reminds me of him."
The purpose of this method was to better understand the users' relationships with their passed pets and the context in which the relationship existed.
Before the interviewing process, I planned an Artifact Analysis study by asking selected participants to choose up to 5 objects that they feel are important to their experience of owning a pet. I then asked them to photograph each item with their phones and send us the pictures with a short description of what each object means to them before the interview session.
I have conducted Semi-structured Interviews with 10 participants to gather more anecdotal data about the participants' experience with their loss of their pet, how/if they found support, and how the experience affected them.
Even though I planned the most questions focusing on what kind of support they believed was missing, I also wanted the participants to lead the conversation topics to get as much information as possible about their experiences. Therefore, I was mostly listening to them rather than talking to allow them to feel comfortable with sharing.
in-person interview with Participant 2
I started the interviews with a Picture Card Activity where I presented participants with cards, which I prepared beforehand, that could represent someone’s activities with their pets in two different categories: pictures of places, pictures of objects. I asked the participants to select one card from each category and speak about their experience through that lens.
The purpose of this activity was to warm the conversation up by evoking memory and build trust between us and the participants.
picture cards used in the research
After our data was collected, I evaluated the outcomes with a Coding Practice, where I synthesized and analyzed the results in categories. This thematic method of analysis of data allowed us to define our findings, identify commonalities, relationships, and differences, and understand our users’ needs.
1- Throughout the grieving process, pet owners hold on to and/or create momentos that serve as reminders of the lives of their pets.
“After my dog passed I got a tattoo of him. I felt like I had to do something."
“I still look back at old photos of my dog all the time.”
2- The amount of type of support bereaved pet owners receive depends on the experiences that others have previously had with pets.
“I specifically sought out friends that had experience with losing pets for support. I knew they would be the most understanding.”
3- Despite religious affiliations or beliefs, pet owners feel the need to ritualistically commemorate their pets’ lives after their passing.
“After we cremated her, we went to the beach and blowed her ashes to the sea. We used to all go there as a family and we thought it was fitting.”
4- As the health of a pet begins to decline, pet owners, struggle with knowing when the “right” time to put their pet down.
“It was sad but she was suffering. It was better to end it for her.”
“I could tell he was getting worse. It was just heartbreaking to watch. After he threw up one night I knew that I had to take him in the next day.”
5- Family members need to convey the passing of their pet to other family members with grace and consideration to avoid unintentionally increasing the shock felt by the receiving party.
“But it was not until like i think a week later until I asked, ‘Oh how’s Blessing (her dog) doing?’ and she (her mother) said, ‘What do you mean? She is dead.”
As we evaluated our learnings from the interviews and secondary research we conducted, we defined the following design principles:
When dealing with the often traumatic experience of the death of a pet, it is necessary to ensure that there is a focus on sensitivity and empathy.
Much like the memories of people’s pets, any design intervention should be lasting and acknowledge the timespan in which the experience of losing a pet takes place.
Reliability of any intervention is a high priority because, in a state of heightened vulnerability, pet owners need to feel they are safe and supported.
Prototyping & Testing
With careful evaluation and meticulous iteration process, we ended up developing a website (which is unavailable right now) that aims to ease pet owners' grief with temporary replications of their pet’s hologram. Users need to upload a few pictures of their lost pets and complete a small quiz about their pets’ personalities.
After receiving the equipment to set up the hologram, users have the ability to turn it off whenever they want. This option helps users to realize that they are healing through the grief and they have the option to say goodbye to their pets when they feel ready.
As I reached back out to our initial participants to propose our prototype and gather their feedback for evaluation, they unanimously agreed that this form of intervention would most likely enable a pet owner to prolong the grieving process and never fully work through their grief, which is the opposite of our goal. Overall, their mutual response was:
" It sounds really creepy. This would extend my process of grief rather than helping it. "
After receiving participant feedback on our prototype, we realized that it would bring unhealthy expectations and our proposed design can come off as "scary" and “creepy” instead of helping our users. Therefore we prepared the following solutions instead:
Research Through Design
We realized that we need to continue to look into existing interventions and research in the “Technology X Death” space for both pets and humans to gain a better understanding of the current field as a whole.
New Guiding Question
"As we move into the future, what ways should artificial intelligence, sensors, and the built environment interact with death and grief?"
We started developing guidelines for future designers when dealing with projects in our topic space. This would be an expanded version of our design principles that reads as a sort of manifesto based on the amalgamation of our first and second-hand research. We came up with 5 heuristics to consider when designing for “Technology X Death” space:
1- Technology should not interfere with the grieving process.
2- Mental health above all else.
3- A possible product in this space should be cognizant of the variations in the time of an individual’s grieving process.
4- Instill trust with the product/brand.
5- Encourage community.
I learned some critical lessons with this project that I will always carry with me. The most important ones can be listed as:
Sometimes the best thing designers can do is to step back.
We listened to our users and took the technology out of our problem space. Even though we had strong beliefs around technology's benefits to humans life, we found out that some areas should remain as manual as possible.
Designers should not lose the humanistic perspective.
Developing a product is exciting. However, it should not be forced if the product could cause serious physical or mental harm to users. As a designer, we should always analyze the opportunities and threats that our design decisions might lead to.
There is always another option.