Traces of You
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Traces of You is a suite of interaction design concepts that consider how the digital might be
integrated into the material practices of grieving for (and remembering) the deceased.
“The places you went…” is a tapestry stitched from the data memories of the departed. Using GPS trails & geotagged data, the deceased are remembered through their travels and trajectories. Open and available data is collected from multiple sources, generating a memory-trail to be stitched by the bereaved. The material practice of stitching serves as ceremony and observance as well as a tangible record of meaningful location-based data.
How does it work?
The bereavered logs into the “Traces of you…” website and gets access to publicly shared geo-tagged data of the deceased from services like Facebook, Foursquare, Instagram, Lattitude etc. The service does the work of accessing the publicly shared data from the API’s of these sites. Users can add important markers along the way (like home, work, favourite spot etc.) that are related to the deceased. The service will then generate a blueprint of these GPS trails as a tapestry to be stitched over by the bereavered. A tablet / touchscreen app will generate the same map in electronic format so that one can retrieve these memories. Conductive thread or other touch capacitive material could also be used to communicate directly to the application from running one’s finger over the tapestry (see video).
User and desk research revealed that material practices which are used to deal with grief and make sense of one’s loss are increasingly on the wane in modern life. Further, marginalia such as notes of and correspondence with the deceased start to take on a new meaning when a person dies. A new source of marginalia is the traces of our lives we leave on social media. These cannot be viewed as “virtual” anymore, but are another kind of production of meaning with similar emotional resonance as that of the “physical” world. Finally, the actual production of an artefact in the name of the deceased is a well understood means to deal with loss. Language, it seems, is not able to always capture the condition of grief and hence material practices step in to make meaning and act as bridges towards the acceptance of loss.
Final deliverables: 1. Stitched tapestry 2. Experience prototype of iPad application 3. Video prototype of concept
Reminisce is an email plug-in that allows users to look back at archived conversations with a particular person in a novel way.
How does it work?
The application archives and encapsulates your Gmail conversation history with a lost loved one, allowing you an opportunity to sift through select snippets of conversation. Similar to the existing Gmail search tool, users can search by contact and by keyword (Screen 2 below). This is where the similarity ends. On clicking the Reminisce button, they are taken to a minimalist interface which encapsulates and arranges all instances where the person has mentioned the searched for word (Screen 3 below). Running their finger over the screen, users can get a glimpse of selected snippets of conversations where the word was mentioned and the date. The novel interaction method is simple and intuitive and sifting through large quantities of conversations can be done far quicker than the existing Gmail system. The interaction has been specifically designed to add to the emotive experience of looking back and reminiscing. When the person would like to read more of the email, she simply clicks on the “Read” email icon at the top and is taken to it (Screen 4 below).
The concept was arrived at after user research and other interviews revealed that existing tools of looking back and sifting through large archives of data shared between people (ie, email, sms msgs etc.) were lacking in both functionality and emotive power. Reminisce is a way of sifting through a lot of the things said between you and another person, but in a more engaging, meaningful and easy way. Although the plugin is not specific to death per se, such conversations and data could take on an entirely different meaning upon the death of one of the persons.
Final deliverables: Experience prototype for Android applications using a Processing sketch.
(Many thanks to Antoni Kaniowski and Rohit Sharma for all their help / advice with Processing)
Vestigial Flicker is an ambient display object that considers the digital “afterlife” of a deceased person online. Listening for network activity concerning a departed loved one, whenever a person is mentioned, searched for, or referenced online, the flicker of flame alerts the living that someone, somewhere is thinking of those who have departed us.
How does it work?
A physical computing device in the shape of candle constantly “listens” for network activity concerning a departed loved one over the internet. Whenever such activity is detected, using the APIs of the relevant services (such as Google Alerts, Facebook, Twitter, Blogspot etc.) the candle “glows” to signify the continued presence of the person even after death. The candle then sends a feed directly to the bereaved with all the times that such activity has been detected listed by service.
Throughout my project I had been testing out ideas of digital persistence with my interviewees. I was curious to know how people’s perception of an “afterlife” had changed in the post-digital world. I was surprised to find that many people wished to “live on” in a digital afterlife of sorts. Vestigial Flicker was made as a provocation to see how people would respond to such notions and to ask: could such ambient devices be used for commemoration/grieving purposes?
Final deliverables: Video prototype.
Traces of You is an exploration of the theme of death in interaction design. Today, we live in a world where the digital walks the earth much like the physical, so what does this mean for designing artefacts and systems of grieving when people die? Can data be used to create new grieving “tools” or personal memorial artefacts?
At the outset, I asked two questions that would define the direction and nature of this project:
Which led me to wondering what was new about death today, and what were the ways in which people currently grieved?
This got me thinking about what kind of traces people leave behind when they pass away? They leave behind material things (clothes, houses, cars, computers), social connections (family, friends) and immaterial things (memories, bank acounts). I then asked, what was new about what people leave behind when they die these days, and the answer, quite categorically was: data. All kinds of data. Data in the form of correspondence, location-based data, social-media accounts, health…
To answer the second question, “what are the ways in which people grieve?” I needed to deep-dive into a comprehensive research phase which consisted of the following:
Desk / Contextual / Self experimentation
Inspired by a talk on interaction design by Matt Ward, I began to look for “trajectories for possibility” within the larger theme of my project, so I started sifting through diverse cultural spaces where “death” manifested itself. I looked at films, objects, gaming environments, music, architecture, Google searches and so on… The intent behind such bricolage style desk reseach, according to Matt, is to (1) begin to build somewhat of an “internal logic” that will guide the project forward and (2) to create a world around the project to make sense of the aesthetic and interactive possibilities that could emerge.
So in some ways it was an exploration of the aesthetics of death… Why is Microsoft’s “screen of death” blue, while Apple takes a more sombre grey-black approach? You can read a little bit about my reflections of death in video games here, where I recall my childhood playing Prince of Persia and also review a game called Graveyard, which puts the gamer into a rather unusual moral dilemma. I also brushed up on the HCI literature on “thanatosensitive design” (design that recognizes and engages with the conceptual and practical issues surrounding death in the creation of interactive systems), which I found quite illuminative and inspiring.
Along the way I also performed little fun experiments that involved role-playing, such as talking to SIRI and IRIS (Android’s Siri) about death:
I didn’t want this to be a “depressing” project and I needed to make sure that I could have fun while carrying out my research and enjoy the process along the way. The above kinds of reflections and experimentation went a long ways towards achieving that.
Which leads me to what was perhaps the most important phase of this project: user research. Overall I met 7 people in Copenhagen and interviewed 5 others online. This was absolutely invaluable in gaining insight into how people have dealt with the deaths of people that were very close to and for testing out perceptions on death and data that I was exploring. I am left in great debt to the people who opened up to me and provided me with first hand experiences that were certainly not always easy to revisit.
For the interviews, I used prompts & props to stimulate conversation. Some of the useful ones were: The “Goodbye balloon” (which carries data you want to get rid of forever), prompt cards (to get people thinking about legacy items), grief cycle cards (that helped people reflect on the different stages grieving process) and various other sketches and props that I brought with me of varying levels of fidelity.
Another tool I found really useful was ideational sketching. Any idea, no matter how silly or playful, was given a say in the form of a simple sketch that I would put up on a wall. Over time I began grouping and categorising them as I noticed patterns. I would test them out on people in the interviews (see the “Goodbye Jeff app” above) and learn from people’s reactions to them. I found sketches particularly useful as they are not deemed as “precious” by both the people I spoke to or myself and could be critiqued and refined easily. Below is a selection of a few of them:
One of my favourite rough sketches was the “What Would Mom Do?” gadget, that was a provocation to thinking about the data-inheritance of a person’s consumer preferences. A bracelet where your deceased loved one would tell you what to buy based on his/her past consumption patterns. Needless to say, the market was perhaps not read for it yet . Although I did learn that people were far more accepting of ideas of digital persistence than I had initially thought.
I also did a little bit of video prototyping along the way. I made a quick semi science fictional video on a “griever bot” that would help people to get over their grief via means of a digital séance. This was used to test out people’s perceptions on digital persistence and explore the notion of a digital afterlife and ways of traversing through the grief-cycle.
I soon realised that I had began exploring the theme of death (and data) from three perspectives: (1) Personal data left behind in geographical space (geo-tagged personal data), (2) data left behind in interpersonal space (emails, text messages etc.) and (3) the notion of the persistence of data or the afterlife of personal data.
Insights & Observations
At the end of the research/testing phase, I gathered insights and observations which helped me frame my design challenge. These were as follows:
Which led me to frame my design challenge:
Based on what I had learned from my explorations and user-research, I decided I wanted to design for the bereaved and explore new ways for people to commemorate and look back at their lost loved ones. It seemed to be a worthy opportunity space for both exploration and a chance to, dare I say it, prototype cultural practices. I also decided upon the idea of a suite of concepts as I wanted very much to continue my exploration to cover different aspects of the theme.
I did a lot of sketching and brainstorming with colleagues at CIID and finally locked down on exploring the following:
I felt like all three of the concepts reflected my insights and observations from over a month and a half of exploration and these materialised into the final concepts and protoypes shown above.
Final presentation and feedback
I presented Traces of You as my final project at CIID in front of faculty and colleagues as well as a panel of external examiners which included David Rose (MIT Media Lab, Vitality etc.), Mette Harrestrup Lauritzen (Designskolen Kolding) and Tom Donaldson (Jawbone).
In the interest of openness, I’m pulling this feedback (+ & -) directly from my CIID “report” given to me after my presentation:
• Concept well received, “one of the most poignant final projects”. Represents a “compelling opportunity space”
• Process “involved good sketching and prototyping” methods
• Documentation / Communication was deemed “strong, well measured and well paced.”
• Final presentation was ”persuasive, calm and convincing”
• The use of Twitter, Facebook for as primary source was at times “jarring” with the subject matter. Further iterations should work out how to make more poignant the ephemera they contain
• Some music picks were perhaps not the right tone
• At times disconcerting to see other class mates used as actors in videos
• If I had focused on one concept only, could I have gone deeper into the design process?
Looking back (and ahead) it seems that there is a lot that existing services can do to be more sensitive to the possibility that people who use them can (and will) die. Services such as Facebook, Gmail, Foursquare etc. need to realise that what they hold is not just raw data of the deceased, but memories and other packets of emotive data. I explored the above three concepts to think about and consider what interaction design could do to open up these notions. And it seems like the field is wide open and it’s time we start to engage with it. I am particularly interested in taking Reminisce and Vesigial Flicker forward as nothing of the sort currently exists on the market.
Many thanks to my awesome advisor Jamie Allen and all the folk at CIID who helped so much in so many ways.