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Project Highlights

Team & Mentor

Ajay Jayakumar, Sneha Gokhale, Chris Lueb, Dr. Dawn Gross

Project Advisors: Kristian Simsarian, Peter Coughlan, Charlotte Hochman, Marc O’Brien, Sarah Harrison

Initiative: Social Impact, Design Research, Systems Thinking, Prototyping, Usability Testing 

Timeline: 4 Months Research, 4 Months Prototype

Location: San Francisco


I was originally drawn to the end of life space because it's an emotionally difficult topic that many people in modern society feel uneasy to speak about in the open. This eight-month case study captures what people from different age groups and cultural backgrounds have shared with us in regards to their understanding of the pre, during, and post-death phases.

The Outcome

An interactive and immersive experience that empowers people to think and talk about the end of life, either by themselves or with a loved one.


Why Designing for Death and End-of-life?


Earlier this year, a colleague shared her experience from an event she attended in San Francisco which started a conversation amongst the group. While sharing our personal stories around the topic, we discovered the TED talk by BJ Miller, (What really matters at the end of life).

The video introduced us to the Zen Hospice Project and prompted us to ask, how can we as designers contribute towards this space As a result of our conversations with the Zen Hospice staff, we started wondering about the taboo around death and how we might design for it.



To understand why death is taboo, we dove into secondary research to discover that death became a taboo in many cultures.


Dying moved from homes to hospitals.

When the plague first arrived in the 14th Century, dying moved from homes to hospitals.


Death is still hidden away in basement morgues.

Fast forward to today, death is still hidden away in basement morgues while birth is celebrated.


Death is universal, but our attitudes towards it have shifted over time.

Cultures across the world have distinctive traditions connected to grief and loss. While the concept of death is universal, our attitudes towards it have shifted over time.


In the past, we were a lot closer to the end. Our parents would die in our own homes, and our siblings often wouldn’t make it past their teenage years. Over the past century in Western cultures, however, death has moved from our homes to hospitals.

As a result, conversations around the end-of-life have transitioned from being common to being taboo.



How can we make death less taboo?


In order to understand how we can make death less taboo, we started with ethnographic interviews

We soon realized that due to the taboo nature of the topic however, we needed additional research approaches.


One of our approaches entailed organizing a few facilitated lunches covering topics around the end of life, which was inspired by the Death Cafe format of food and conversation.


The second approach was done in collaboration with Dr. Dawn Gross and entailed building a phone booth, which was inspired by Itaru Sasaki’s Japanese Wind Phone.


The stories that emerged from our research highlighted that in order to make death less taboo people need space, time and permission.


“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 is 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 outlet.”

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?



“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.




By combining all these stories (and many others) through a personalized framework, we were able to define some key insights.

team working

Even though it is uncomfortable thinking and talking about death, it is important to do so because it informs the way we live our lives and helps us grieve from a loss.


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.

When prototyping these ideas over the course of a few weeks however, we had to acknowledge the fact that we aren’t licensed grief counsellors or artists, but that we are interaction designers.

As a result, we designed and prototyped an immersive and interactive experience that empowers people to have meaningful thoughts and conversations about the end of life. 


Initial Sketch

Creating an initial sketch helped everyone to visualize and discuss what the experience would look like.

User Conceptual Model

Creating a user conceptual model of all five stages of the experience helped us discuss each touch point in more detail.



By making small bids, we were able to iterate eight times over the course of three weeks.


One of our iterations was built inside CCA’s meditation room.


Another iteration involved building a tent with a backlight projector.

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As we were building and testing our prototypes, we felt the need to define a set of design principles to guide us in our decision making.



Ensuring participants resonate with the experience while leaving enough room for imagination.


Creating conditions for participants to be present, focussed, and engaged.


Ensuring the experience does not come off preachy, prescriptive, or disrespectful.


Taking into account the form of the experience, we first explored how to build a more solid structure at a lower scale.


Eight prototypes and three weeks later, we arrived at the Lumen experience.


(click and drag video to navigate experience)




People that have already been through this experience came in with their own stories, and came out with their own meaning-making.


One of them told us that he’s usually not an emotional person, but this experience made him realize the importance of his family.

Someone else said that he was surprised by how this experience made him feel. He had never really heard about a designed experience that has this effect.

Another person got really excited about this experience and hoped that others will also get to go through it at some point.

“It made me think of my family, who is very far away right now.”

“I had this feeling in my chest, which doesn’t happen in most designed experiences.”

“I love that this exists, please take it to places so that people can experience it.”



In memory of Bruno. A grandfather full of life stories.



My most significant learning during this project was to trust the process and embrace ambiguity.

I also learned to importance of empathy and mindfulness, mainly because of the nature of the space.

Moreover, the project challenged us to push our design thinking beyond screen-based UI.

I also learned about new frameworks including the Meta-capital framework to measure the impact and success of the Lumen experience, as well as a personalized project dartboard to help us grow collectively and individually.

Finally, this project expanded my view of how to design for individuals and society.

Next Steps

We’re incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to install the Lumen experience at Reimagine in New York City. With the help of Dr. Dawn Gross, we received a grant which will help make that happen.

Apart from this event, we envision this experience to also live in other events, as well as museums and festivals.

Finally, we’d 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 tailor Lumen to suit these environments as well.





Easeful Reader

Easeful Reader