Research Study Creates 12 Design Concepts for Digital Legacy Ideas

As we continue to produce vast amounts of digital data, most people have never planned for how that data will exist after they are long gone. Lack of this planning may seem like a personal decision, but it can have major implications for our families and friends. A University of British Columbia research study looked into ways that people could control how their personal data is passed along after they die and what types of tools could be developed to do so.

“As someone growing up completely in the digital revolution, all the memories captured of my life are stored digitally. It struck me that many of the platforms I use don’t have great tools to support that data after I’m gone. We wanted to look at how to curate this data both while living, and after death.”

Janet Chen, lead author of the study

Janet Chen along with co-authors Francesco Vitale and Dr. Joanna McGrenere produced 12 design concepts that explore methods we could use to preserve our digital data for posterity. They then presented these concepts to a group of study participants aged 18 to 81. Each of the concepts utilized various methods for how the participants would interact with and complete the tasks related to managing their data. You can view a description of all 12 conceptual tools here.

The participants told the researchers that they had not really thought about their digital data. They were more receptive towards tools that allowed them to control what data was passed along but were creeped out regarding one concept using artificial intelligence to create a replica of a deceased person. It so happens that this is a concept that has already become a reality. And there are still other similar concepts being created. Another one uses a deceased person’s text message history to allow for a conversational chatbot. You can read more about my thoughts on this concept and watch a documentary of a physical concept brought to life here.

I found that all the research concepts fell into two distinct categories. Ways to make sure we prepare our digital data for loved ones for immediate action upon death and ways to use digital data for future family generations to celebrate our lives. These are the two main aspects of a digital legacy but the tools to use them can be different since they have different agendas. Sometimes tools try to achieve both like for Checklist Crusher concept (see below) which prompts you to complete tasks that serve both purposes. Overall I believe the concepts were very interesting and provoke us to think and start conversations around digital legacy. I loved Generation Cloud (see below) which also was a top pick from the research participants. I’ve personally started a project to create something similar.

2 of the 12 Design Concepts

Checklist Crusher
Use this interactive tracker to tackle your data before you die! Target areas are suggested by the system and, over time, you can gain enough points to share trophies and unlock free storage space in the cloud.
Generation Cloud
Explore the most cherished digital assets from generations of your family. Listen to your grandma’s favourite songs, see historical photos of your great-great-uncle, review aggregated location data of travels of your parents, and more in a family digital safe of memories. You upload data as you go and it remains there after you die.

You can view all of the concepts that were created here. The full research paper is also available and I found it to be very enlightening and worth reading. They discover many different aspects related to the data they collected from the participants and specific nuances based on the age groups and life stages of the participants. These differences in the participants provided very different thoughts and motivations around this data. This is evident by the conclusion the researchers came to and why it’s difficult to build tools in the digital legacy space.

“…many believed that managing data for death is important, welcoming tools in support of this process. We show, however, that no one-size-fits-all approach can satisfy all desires and concerns…”

Excerpt from research paper

Overview of participants’ reactions

I want to point out that several of these conceptual features already exist in some form today in existing digital estate planning services. It’s exciting to see that more attention is being placed on the importance of preserving our personal data. This reflection from the study was also interesting.

“There is a huge opportunity for research with larger populations and new interfaces to support people who care about what happens to their data,” said McGrenere. “Tools need to be lightweight to use, and designed so that they support the range of individual differences that we saw in our participants in terms of how they want to manage their data.”

Quote from Dr. Joanna McGrenere on CTV News

I believe as the digital generation grows older, considering and planning our digital legacy will become more mainstream in the future and incorporated into our current estate planning. The researchers came to a similar conclusion.

“Ten years from now it will likely be quite commonplace for people to be thinking about the reams of data they have online, and there is a huge opportunity for research with larger populations and new interfaces to support people who care about what happens to their data,”

Dr. Joanna McGrenere, co-author of the study

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