In the Fall of 2017, our team had worked on a palliative care project and gathered a lot of research. This research covered the human mindsets about death and loss. When we received an opportunity to pursue a complex social challenge for two semesters, we excitedly approached a design intervention around the taboo of death. We saw a genuine need for conversations and Lumen was born.
Think about a deep loss you have experienced recently.
The death of a loving pet?
The death of an elderly relative?
The death of a close friend?
As the loss gets more profound, conversations get more uncomfortable. That’s because...
Death is a taboo topic.
Why is death taboo?
we dived into secondary research and found that when the plague first arrived in the 14th Century, dying moved from homes to hospitals.
Fast forward to today, death is still hidden away in basement morgues while birth is celebrated. This removal of dying from our midst has resulted in a loss of conversation and therefore a connection with the end of life.
Death is taboo because it is not part of our cultures anymore.
How can we make death less taboo?
In order to understand how we can make it less so, we started with ethnographic interviews.
We soon realised that due to the taboo nature of the topic, we needed additional research approaches.
One of our approaches was inspired by the Death Cafe format of food and conversation. We organised a few facilitated lunches covering topics around the end of life.
The second approach was inspired by Itaru Sasaki’s Japanese Wind Phone. We collaborated with Dr. Dawn Gross and built a phone booth that lived at the SF Senior center for 6 months.
From the stories that emerged from our research, we learned about the 3 attributes that would help us make death less taboo.
“It felt so nice to visit my mother’s grave, at least I had someplace to go and express my thoughts.”
A woman told us how nice it is to visit her mother’s grave and grieve. Even though she found a place she could go to, many others we talked to do not have one.
“Death a taboo topic but there are times in your life when that's all you want to talk about and it's difficult to find the right time to do so.”
Another person shared that even though death is a taboo topic, there are moments in all our lives where all we want to do is talk about it. But is there ever a right time to do so?
“As time passes, no one asks me about my wife anymore. I never really get the chance to bring her up myself either.”
A widower shared his story where he said he never has the opportunity to talk about his deceased wife anymore with anyone.
Why should death not be a taboo?
Talking about death informs the way we live our lives. While it is uncomfortable to think and talk about, it does help us cope and realise what is important to us.
How might we provide space, time, and permission to have meaningful thoughts and conversations around the end of life?
When brainstorming around this opportunity, we came up with several ideas including a camping experience, and a series of murals across the city.
However we had to acknowledge the fact that we aren’t licensed grief counsellors or artists, but we are interaction designers.
As a result, we designed and prototyped an immersive, interactive experience that empowers people to have meaningful thoughts and conversations about the end of life.
Our initial prototypes
Starting in CCA’s meditation room, followed by setting up a tent, we arrived at the Lumen experience.
The Lumen Experience
Many people have already been through this experience. All of them come in with their own stories, and all of them come out with their own meaning making.
In conjunction with our design intent and the feedback we received from our interviews we crafted these experience principles to guide our design.
Creating conditions for users to be present, focussed and engaged.
Providing a platform for reflections and meaning making.
Ensuring our users resonate while leaving enough room for imagination.
From entice to extend users should never notice touchpoint transitions.
Our language will not be preachy, prescriptive or disrespectful.
Learnings & Next Steps
One of my biggest learnings during this project was embracing ambiguity. It was extremely difficult to derive insights from such varied and unique stories. The patterns were there but needed a more in depth look to be uncovered.
Less is more
There were times when we wanted to fill the space with many different devices and things, but decided to hold off and give them time to think and not be prescriptive with our design
Teamwork and Diversity
I couldn’t have done this project alone. Different perspectives were required at all points to look at and point how things don’t feel right. We have had more meetings that were gut checks during this project than I remember from any other project I have done in my career.
We’re also incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to install the Lumen experience at Reimagine in New York City.
Apart from this event, we imagine that this experience could definitely live in other events, as well as museums, and festivals. We’d also like to offer this experience in everyday environments like schools and offices. Imagine your co-worker passed away, where would you go? Who would you talk to? We’d like to distill the Lumen experience to suit these environments as well.