Research, Objectives and Questions

Goals for my research are based on the intent to design a service that outlives the owner, that can be bequeathed and that carries on a reflection of the owners identity. With these goals in mind I divided the research in 3 target areas of investigation: 1. Relationship with Digital, 2. Digital Identity, 3. Bequeath Content. In my research I want to investigate how people relate to digital data and find out what data they value.

Relationship with Digital

In this area I want to investigate how and why a relationship to digital data and data that comes from others is build. Research proves that people are connected to physical mementos: they select a small number of objects that are linked to important memories. Many such mementos are considered to be worth of inheritance1. I was wondering how this can be translated to the digital world and how important connecting memories to digital data are.

In this context it might be interesting to find out if people have nostalgia for digital environments like old websites or desktops and if rituals might be part of that relationship. How is something digital getting important to someone?

Digital Identity

With new technologies people are collecting more and more data that joined together are a digital representations of themselves. I would like to divide the personal data that lives in the digital world into 4 sub-topics.

The Public Space – this space contains the social networks in which the user is part of a bigger group. The data gets published and shared within a network but also has constrains, like layout of the site and suggested content. Examples are Facebook, Twitter, Myspace and published articles at online sites like GOOD…

The Personal Public Space – in this space the user is an author and publishes his/her own content without any constrains that, for example, can be found at social network sites. Examples are blogs, own websites, portfolios etc.

The Personal Own Space – this is the space that is not getting published and just lives on the own computer, mobile devices and/or a home network. Examples are folders with pictures, music and written word documents etc.

The Passive Space – this environment contains content that is not written by the user but by others. The user has no active influence on that topic.

In these areas I want to find out how digital data is handled? What part of our digital representation is deemed to be valuable, what needs to die? Are people aware of their digital identity?

Bequeath Content

Recent research shows that in the real world people use rituals, artifacts and memorials to be remembered by loved ones2 and little has been done to understand, address and translate that issue to the digital world. The research will consider how the real worlds rituals apply to digital? What preparations are made by people to bequeath content? What is the processes around burial, memorial, the will? Are requirements needed to put the digital life in order?

The Research Findings


With the questions in the survey3 I tried to cover all 3 research topics: Relation with Digital, Digital Identity and Bequeath Content. I asked 11 questions however the following two question gave me some of the best insides: I wanted to find out if people differentiate between important data from the present (“You have only 10 minutes before your entire computer gets destroyed. What would be the most important data you save on a flash drive?”) and meaningful data for the future (“Which of your data would you like to give (or pass down) to your children/friends/family one day and why?”). I asked 68 people and despite the fact that the questions where open ended, 7 main topics came up repeatably:

Photos – 
For both question more than 90% answered that they would save photos (portraits of friends/family, from vacation) and in some cases videos. Some of the reasons mentioned were “personal memories”, “stories”, “share own life with the next generation”, “that might be enjoyable”, “to show how different live was”, “have the feeling that I will not be forgotten to easily”.

Work related Data – 
In this section people differentiated between the two questions. Almost everyone wanted to save work related data in case the computer would have been destroyed but only a few would inherit this data. Interestingly the few people who wanted to inherit work data had their own studio, were freelancing or students. Which indicates that data that is related to ownership is an important aspect for people. It probably indicates a reflection of identity that seems valuable to bequeath. People said they want to bequeath “self initiated work”, “scanned art (from the original)”, “university papers”, “all my work, but I would print it”, “scientific papers: they took so much time and effort somebody else could use it” and “my bachelor thesis”.

 – Especially people with a extensive music collections mentioned to inherit that to children/friends/family, interestingly they did not mention the music itself (replaceable) but the collection they compile: “when my music collection is complete, I am looking forward to inherit it” and I “would like to make a mixtape for friends and family”. Again, this shows how personal identity reflected in the data makes the data more important. The personal “touch” that is given to the data makes it unique. People want to pass on this personal data.

 – Selected mails, digital diaries, poems and personal writing were considered to be worthwhile to be inherited by about 10% of the people. Actually I was surprised to see that only about 10% wanted to inherit writing. I think though this depends on the group I am asking. Nowadays a lot of people publish their written words to the internet, where it is save and public.

Personal Financial Records – 
Nobody wanted to inherit this but they wanted to save it in case the computer gets destroyed. Financial Records do seem more important for the own life not so important for the heirs. Again, I think financial records don’t tell a story people want to leave behind, it is safety.

Family Tree and Document with all Passwords
 – 3 % of the people had a family tree and/ or a password document that they said they would “save on a stick” as well as inherit to children and other family members.

One-on-One Interviews

I had some one-on-one interviews and was lucky enough to get insights from Paul Andrew Leonhard, Licensed Funeral Director and Vice President at Gravenor – Home for Funerals and James Leedam from UK based Natural Burial Grounds.

In those interviews I heard a lot about Facebook and I thought it is interesting how the role of a Facebook page changes after someone passed away. That page becomes a place for the friends to talk about their loved ones and it is interesting how people can talk much more openly about that person: they post pictures, share memories and tell stories. The page becomes a digital meeting space just like the funeral where people come for one reason (the person who passed away) and can feel free to talk about their grief without having the sense of not being at the appropriate place or time. One of the reasons might be that the Facebook pages are a group of people that all have one thing in common: they knew the person who passed away and each one has their own memories about that person. It might also help that this Facebook page is a digital representation of someone and it is in that sense real but not the “real world”. Even if somebody is gone, the digital representation remains and makes it easy to talk about that person or even to that person.

A second, for me important finding from the interviews was that only a few people prepare for death and that stands to reason. A good example is my sisters comment on that subject-matter. When I asked her why she thinks that topic is wired she responded: “Because people do not want to deal with something like that, since it makes them become scared”. Which is true and from what I heard from the interviews the only reason for people to really think about that issue is when a particularly good or a particularly bad thing happens. Those experiences can be the birth of your child, a funeral or a near death incident.

What that means for my intended designed experience is that I want to think in different directions: How can digital assets be saved, stored and curated in a way that is not awe-inspiring? So I want to look into designed experiences that are maybe not directly related to death, but rewarding in a short space of time. Maybe there is even a tangible way to encourage people to delve into their personal digital assets.

  1. Daniela Petrellli, Steve Whittaker and Jens Brockmeier, “Auto Typography: What Can Physical Mementos Tell us about Digital Memories”, CHI, 2008, 3, []
  2. William Odom, Richard Harper, Abigail Sellen, David Kirk and Richard Banks, “Passing On & Putting To Rest: Understanding Bereavement in the Context of Interactive Technologies”, Microsoft Research, in Proceedings of CHI 2010, April 2010, []
  3. Kristin Gräfe, “Me & My Computer”, Survey October, 2010 []