Passing Away In Pixels

I got suspicious when Lauren’s chat bubbles turned green. She used an iPhone, so when we kept in touch over text, it was via iMessage, which uses blue chat bubbles. When one of those bubbles turns green, that means it was sent over SMS, old school. There are a number of reasons this could happen, but seeing those green bubbles, coupled with a complete lack of response, and a noticeable absence spanning several months, I got suspicious.

I had hoped it wasn’t true, but sure enough, the top search result for her name was her obituary.

It took me a little while to piece it all together. The article said she died back in February—five months before I found out—but it didn’t feel like I had last talked to her that long ago. I scrolled back through the unanswered green bubbles and discovered that we last conversed just three days before an irresponsible driver crashed into her boyfriend’s car on the highway. That I last spoke with her so close to her death is the one bit of fortune I’ve felt about the whole tragedy.

Lauren was a friend whom I had known primarily on the internet. We first met way back when LiveJournal was a thing that people legitimately used. It was kind of a weird time when personal blogging was still underground (they didn’t even call it blogging yet). It was a time when your life could be public-yet-private; it wasn’t the big personal-brand–self-promotion machine that we often find with social networks today. It was easy to get personal, and to learn the intimate workings of another person’s mind. It was through these weird little daily journal entries and comment sections that Lauren and I kindled a friendship. As time progressed, the communication channels changed, but we stayed connected through it all. Not just following one another from service to service, but following up, checking in, doling out advice, providing comfort, and celebrating wins.

Lauren was a close and enduring friend of mine. We had known each other for more than a decade. That’s longer than I’ve had my dog. Longer, in fact, than I’ve known most of my closest IRL friends. She was a welcome, if nearly invisible, presence in my life. So, when I found out about her passing five months after the fact, and only through cleverness on my part, I have to admit that it stung fiercely. But I get it. Just as she flew under the radar among my family and friends, I was just positive her loved ones would have no idea who I was. (I did write her parents a letter expressing my sadness and condolences and, thankfully, they shared it with her best friend, who reached out and said that she did know about me. It was a big relief.)

Living on the internet has certainly felt surreal at times, and perhaps nothing is more surreal than when someone you mostly know through pixels passes away. There’s just not a standard cultural protocol to expect. I think it’s worth considering how the friends your friends don’t know about can get news of your passing.

In the past, I’ve talked casually with my brother about how I want him to tell my online friends when I die, but having been affected by just such an event so recently, it spurred me to actually put how that should work into writing. With that in mind, here are some ideas I have if you’d like to do the same thing.

Get a Password Manager

A password manager is not only a great idea for your personal security (and sanity), it can also provide the keys to your online identity after your death. It can sometimes be harder to gain access to a deceased person’s gaming account than it can be to get the title to their home! I use a password manager called 1Password. It stores websites and their corresponding usernames and passwords behind a secure master password. It also has browser plug-ins that automatically log in for you. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. You’ll hear more about what you can do with a password manager to manage your online identity postmortem later on in this article.

If you don’t want to buy a password manager, you can use Apple’s Keychain to keep track of your logins. I’ve just never found it to be quite as intuitive to fit into my workflow.

Your password manager is protected by a master password, that way your passwords can’t be accessed by just anybody. But there’s the issue of getting the master password to the people who need it. You won’t exactly be in a position to let them know what it is yourself, after all.

It’s never a good idea to share your passwords with anybody else, but I’m fortunate enough to have someone whom I can trust with it implicitly. He has my passwords written down—in a secure note in his password manager, of course! (You’ll learn more about secure notes later on in this article.) But this only works as long as one of us survives the other. If (heaven forbid) we happen to go at the same time, I realistically need a better back-up plan.

Get a Safe Deposit Box

I think a safe deposit box is ideal. These are incredibly secure lock boxes that are stored inside a bank’s vault, and they’re pretty inexpensive to rent. The last one I had cost about $6 per year. I stored other important things in there, too, like my car title and passport.

And you’ll feel super-cool anytime you get to go into the vault, turn the two keys simultaneously, and go into the little private room to rummage through your box.

Some people have a personal safe, which can work, too, but then you’ll need to somehow pass on the combination for that, too. Like in a safe deposit box!

Create a Secure Note

As I said before, you can do a lot more with 1Password than just keep track of passwords. In particular, you can create secure notes. These are simple text documents like you’d write in any plaintext editor, but they’re stored securely behind your master password. I’ve written up a secure note that has all the instructions necessary to take care of my digital affairs.

I’ve covered a number of things, and I intend to keep adding more as I think of them, or as my life continues to change and evolve. After all, who knows if I’ll outlive Facebook or if Facebook will outlive me. Here are a few things you may want to think about when you write yours:

  • Who should manage, clean up, organize, and back-up your computer?
  • What should happen to your website? Do you want a memorial posted somewhere on it? Additionally, somebody’s gotta keep paying the domain and web hosting fees. Are you setting aside some money to keep this going, or would you prefer it be shut down and archived privately?
  • Who should know about this explicitly? This could be specific people that you’re emotionally close to, or a general social network. I’ve personally written up three tweets to go out to my Twitter followers. That way my family will post exactly the information I’d like my followers to know. Should your Facebook friend list, YouTube subscribers, or your Snapchat followers also know? Write down in your note how you want that to play out.
  • Additionally, Facebook can memorialize your account. You can explicitly choose a friend who has the power to make that happen. After an account has been memorialized, it can’t be edited ever again. This is another good reason to make your password available through a password manager. Your family can then go in and remove any embarrassing status updates they don’t want forever associated with your name before they memorialize your account. I’ve even told my family to change my photo to something “non-cheesy” where I “look kinda cool”, just so I can look my best after my final rest.

There are probably other things you can do that I haven’t thought about yet, but this is going to be a personal process, no matter what. You might find certain things to be way more important than other things, and your needs may change and evolve over time. It’s up to you to make sure your note is current with your wishes.

Talk to Your Lawyer

All this said, it’s a good idea to talk to a real, live lawyer, too. I haven’t done this yet. Despite this article, I haven’t actually put a lot of consideration into my physical assets at this time. But if you’ve already got a will drawn up, or you’re planning one now, you’re going to want to make sure it has all the information about your digital life included in it, too.

I feel better knowing that all of my friends will know when I’ve died, including the ones I’ve never met IRL. My virtual friends are just as important to me, but it doesn’t help if nobody knows who to tell, or what to say. Taking some time to reflect on which sites and services are important to you will give peace of mind to yourself, as well as those who survive you.

Learnability and common sense

I’m known as a bit of a stickler for having solid theory behind my designs.

One of those theories, or heuristics, is learnability. A system must be learnable; a user must be able to figure it out and remember how to use it over and over again.

Learnability is one of those heuristics that seems like it would be easy, but is actually quite a challenge. For something to be learnable, we need to know both what the system requires the user to know and what knowledge the user already has. (UIE has written well on this topic in their article “Riding the Magic Escalator of Acquired Knowledge“.) We don’t need to teach users what they already know, but we can’t assume they have knowledge they might lack or they won’t be successful. Many users only have so much patience, and we can’t wear it out by closing  giant knowledge gap just to teach them our system either.

We’re at our most dangerous as designers when we assume that everyone knows what we know, and that our designs are easy to learn because we used common sense.

“Well that’s just common sense.”

Ah, common sense, which much like the Moral Majority, is neither. When we first start designing, we often design things the way that we use them or the way we’ve seen them used, rather than the way that works best for the user. UIE calls this stage “Self Design” in “5 Design Decision Styles“.

I know how a doorknob works. I’ve been using doorknobs all my life, I’ve installed them, I’ve removed them, I’ve got a strong mental model for what they look like and how they behave.

This, for example, is a door knob.

A classic round doorknob with a keyhole in the center.
A classic round doorknob with a keyhole in the center. Photo by Alvimann at

Up until about a year ago if you had asked me to go pick out a doorknob for any need, this would be the doorknob I would have picked. Why? It opens doors. Everyone knows how to use it. It’s ubiquitous. It’s just common sense.

Then I got into an argument with a feisty kitchen implement and spent a few weeks with a finger wrapped in bandages.

A picture of Anne Gibson's hand with the index finger wrapped so heavily in gauze it looks like a cartoon character
My Mickey Mouse finger. Photo credit: anne m gibson

And suddenly everything I knew about doorknobs changed. If you can’t grip a round doorknob, it doesn’t turn. You need to be able to grab and twist and push (or pull) and that often needs all the fingers. Doorknobs are really close to doors (surprise!) so it’s easy to whack already-injured fingers on them. In summary, for a certain audience, the classic doorknob is not a common-sense solution to door opening capabilities. It is a total pain in the ass.

When we make design decisions based on our own common sense, we’re really saying “It’s what I know works for me.”

Now here’s another doorknob:

A lever-style doorknob where the user has a long metal handle that sticks back toward the door to push down and either pull or push against to open the door.
A lever-style doorknob. Photo by pippalou at

This one doesn’t require me to twist the doorknob. If it opens out it doesn’t even require me to grab the doorknob, just push down the lever and push the door out.

The ADA National Network recommends the following for door handles:

Door hardware must not require more than 5 lbs. of force to operate. It must also be operable with one hand and without tight grasping, pinching, or twisting of the wrist. Lever handles and some other types comply with this requirement.

And this is the difference between something being learnable because of “common sense” and something being learnable because we’ve researched its impact on users: in the first situation we consider only what we’ve seen, heard, and experienced, and in the second we consider all users, especially the ones that aren’t us.

UX is not a fancy word for common sense.

What makes something learnable?

To be learnable, a system must[1]Thanks to Richard Dalton, Andrew Hinton, John Ferrara, Patrick Lowery, Gina Puzo, and many others for teaching me what they know :

  • Use a consistent visual, linguistic, and interactive vocabulary
  • Match the user’s mental model as much as possible
  • Give the user a sense of environment and direction (to make it navigable)
  • Provide comprehensive functions and control operations
  • Provide help when and where the help’s needed

Continuing our discussion of doorknobs, if we were to introduce a door opening device that we wanted people to learn easily without instructions, we’d start by making the doorknob enough like other doorknobs to be recognizable as a door opening device.

If I’d never seen a lever-type doorknob before, I’d still suspect that it was for opening doors because it uses a consistent visual and interactive vocabulary as other doorknobs I’ve seen. For example, doorknobs are generally a specific heigh and distance from the edge on a door. It turns, it makes clicking noises, and it requires pushing or pulling.

Were I to come across a series of five holes drilled into the center of a square steel panel in a wall, I would not expect the holes to be a doorknob, nor the plank to be a door, because my mental model of a door is a tall rectangular panel hinged on one edge with a protrusion for pushing and pulling on the opposite edge. Any new door opening apparatus I introduce to the world needs to take the user’s mental model into account.

On well-designed doors, the shape and style of the doorknob tells us how to navigate its interface. When things are poorly designed, we get Don Norman doors. Well designed door interfaces offer affordances that help us recognize their use.

A good doorknob allows the user comprehensive control over the door. Imagine the opposite: a door that had, say, a bolt lock in it to allow for locking or unlocking, but not to pull or push the door. It’s great that one can unlock the door, but somewhat substandard to not be able to open it once it’s unlocked. Doors must be openable; that’s a base feature. Locking and unlocking generally come second.

Finally, some doors still need to provide the user help. This may not be the fault of the door designer either — it may be a result of the environment. My favorite Asian Fusion restaurant has a giant “PULL HARD” sign on its door because something (the air pressure in the restaurant? a slight gradient to the door frame? Bad luck?) makes yanking the door open much harder than the standard door. The help provided is contextual: it’s on the door. It’s immediate: big noticeable letters. It’s effective: you immediately know what you did wrong.

Some tips for learnability

As you might guess, what will work to make one system learnable may make another system a disorganized mess. The tricks that follow generally help more than they get in the way.

Know how often your audience will use the system

A user will check their email a few thousand times a year in an office setting, but will probably only set up a 401(k) retirement account a few times in their life. Someone will memorize how to check their mail after the first two days, but will forget how they set up their first 401(k) by the time they need to set up their second.

Email has to be learned once, so learning it can be a little weird or obscure or require a job aid. Setting up retirement accounts need to be learned every time the user goes through the process.

Take it slow

It’s better to break up a longer process into small chunks for unfamiliar users than it is to present a giant form or application. Ask a few questions, validate them, move on to the next part, and help the user build confidence that they can make it through the system.

Present a consistent (friendly!) look and feel for error messages

If the user doesn’t know how to use the process, they’re going to make mistakes. Users will probably spend more time deciphering your error messages than you will creating them. Put effort and time into that task. Follow the 4Hs of Writing Error Messages.

Be consistent within and outside of your system

Consistency is important when learning. You want the user to recognize what success is when they reach it. You want them to recognize error messages when they display — and to know if X cleared the last error message it’ll probably clear it here too. You want to present consistent-looking buttons, links, etc. so the user knows what’s interactive and what isn’t.

But it’s not enough to be internally consistent (although it goes a long way believe me!) You also need to be at least somewhat consistent with the outside world.  For example, as Apple, Google, and countless others began developing touch gestures for phones and tablets, they had to keep an eye on each other’s for — and we had to keep an eye on all of them. It wouldn’t do at all to have a gesture that means “duplicate” on one platform mean “delete” on another. We just can’t guarantee that users will only use one platform.

Research, research, research

If you’re not sure how often your audience will visit the site, do the user research necessary to find out.

If you’re not sure how frequently an interface element is used, do some competitive analysis on direct and indirect competitors and whether they use it.

If you’re not sure whether your work is consistently presenting the design, take screenshots and compare them. Grab a screenshot of every error message in a sign-up process, for example. Do they all use the same tone, voice, visual design, and interactions? If not, are the differences justifiable?

Usability test. Get people in a room and have them try to use your process. Learn what you don’t know you don’t know. Where do they get lost? What doesn’t work? What “common sense” do they bring to the interaction that you didn’t know about?

In conclusion

Learnability sounds like an easy heuristic to master, but we often get in our own way by designing for what we personally know, what we physically can do, and what we find easy to learn instead of what our users know, do, and learn.

Nothing’s common sense unless it’s common sense to the user.

There are both heuristic guidelines and tips and tricks we can use to better design learnability into our systems, and many many books and articles to read. Go, explore, and build more learnable systems.



1 Thanks to Richard Dalton, Andrew Hinton, John Ferrara, Patrick Lowery, Gina Puzo, and many others for teaching me what they know

Stakeholder Storytellers

On my team, we have an in-depth process for revamping sections of our large college website[1]I gave a presentation about it at Confab Edu. There isn’t a video, but my slides are online.. One of the notable features is a sort of co-writing process. It’s something I haven’t heard of anywhere else.

Our team and the stakeholders come up with topics and questions that match the audience’s needs: how do I get a car from the motor pool? Is there a club that does stuff I’m into? Can I get the article I need for this paper? All of this is pretty basic stakeholder interview stuff.

But in a writing meeting, we ask the stakeholders to talk about topics as I type rough sentences and paragraphs in real time. We get something that covers all the key points about that topic in very plain language.

Later, I’ll edit it into something a little smoother for review and improvement. Eventually, our goal is to produce something that’s clear and accurate with a conversational tone.

I hadn’t really thought much about where this part of the process came from until quite recently.

One of my oldest friends and former writing partner has a Twitch show[2]Tuesdays, 9am-ish PST with one of her writing friends. They’re co-writing two projects and the show is when they critique each others’ work.

I just started following along, and in the last episode, they talked about the critique process. Writing groups, they noted, tend to have one of two critique styles: read-ahead, and read out loud. They’ve gone with reading out loud, and they discussed the strengths of that process.

Their take on it mirrored my own experiences. In particular, it’s a strong process for getting useful feedback on early drafts.

  • The reader focuses on the overall effect, instead of grammar or spelling. You’re listening to a story: does it work?
  • The writer is able to hear janky awkward phrasing as they read. Sometimes, you change things even as the words are coming out of your mouth.

Co-writing with stakeholders isn’t quite the same thing, but it sends many of the same signals. People with lots of writing experience know how you should treat a first draft, but even they will be tempted to mark up the technical errors when you just want to know if the things works as a whole. People without that experience tend to get stuck on commas and typos.

Typing fast but not particularly accurately; writing half-sentences; using casual language[3]Stuff is particularly magic., all while people are talking: these send the signals that we’re working on a draft. The power of voices over the written word puts us all in the right frame of mind for this stage.

And as in a read-aloud writing group, they keep the focus on the story. Even if the story isn’t a novel, but just the saga of getting a permit and a car from the motor pool.


1 I gave a presentation about it at Confab Edu. There isn’t a video, but my slides are online.
2 Tuesdays, 9am-ish PST
3 Stuff is particularly magic.