The gravity of grief doesn’t often translate over the fast clip of the internet. Obituaries and personal announcements of loss sit alongside the usual jetsam of a Twitter feed.
In the physical world and in most digital representations, grief has a very specific visual language. It’s flowers and trees, muted colors. The UX design of grief is harder to see, and it’s not something most people think about until they’ve lost someone.
But as more of our lives are lived online, more elements of decisions related to death—like estate planning, end-of-life care, and funerals—are playing out online, too.
Since its launch in 2010, crowdfunding platform GoFundMe has been a source of both hope and sadness; its wide array of fundraising categories include life’s ups (like “Travel” and “Education”) and downs (like “Emergency” and “Funeral and Memorial”).
Until recently, the user experience for those starting these fundraisers—organizers, in GoFundMe parlance—didn’t vary. Organizers raising money for college and organizers raising money for funeral costs went through the same process, even though the needs that brought them to the site were very different.
GoFundMe’s new design flow for those organizing fundraisers for funeral and memorial costs, revealed last month, seems long overdue.
Most technology platforms take a formal approach to the logistics of grief. Take social media profiles, for example. To remove or “memorialize” the Facebook or Instagram account of a deceased person, individuals need to fill out a form and submit proof, such as a death certificate.
After Twitter announced plans to close inactive accounts back in 2019, it faced backlash from those who took comfort in visiting the profiles of their deceased friends and family. Today, Twitter still doesn’t have memorialized accounts, so the only option those who are grieving have is to, again, fill out a form, have those accounts permanently removed.
GoFundMe’s designers wanted to meet its users where they are. Inspiration for the updated design experience came from both the real and virtual worlds.
“We looked at conversational user interfaces that took complex topics and made them feel helpful, guided, and human,” says David Murray, head of design at GoFundMe. As technical influences, Murray cites the innovative design patterns from insurance “disruptors” Ladder and Lemonade, whose uncomplicated but comforting design flows make intimidating products like life insurance more accessible.
But the ethos of the project, which took place over a three-week design sprint, was largely inspired by the way people talk in real life.
“More than anything,” Murray says, “we looked to real-life conversations as the guide to how the experience should feel. Rather than inputting data into an interface, we wanted to reframe the experience to feel more like a real person is helping you one-on-one.”
As Murray explained in the announcement accompanying the rollout of the new design, he lost his father unexpectedly last year. His experience working through the logistics of losing someone so close gave him a renewed empathy toward GoFundMe’s grieving organizers.
So what does digital empathy look like? It’s more tailored, more thoughtful, and less transactional than other kinds of user interfaces. Once users select the funeral and memorial option from the category list (formerly a dropdown, now a block of clustered, at-a-glance options), the screen switches to “the empathy takeover,” a series of messages that take a moment of pause in the sign-up process to recognize the feelings of the person on the other side of the screen.
Other updates include an optional funeral service date feature, which allows organizers to clearly communicate to potential donors the timeline for when funds are needed without having to make that ask themselves. Language adjustments throughout the user experience shift the tone from commands to questions, and the focus from the organizer to the person they’ve lost.
The project made GoFundMe rethink word choices across its platform. In this spirit of conversational versus transactional design, the message board on fundraising pages was renamed from “Comments” to “Words of Support.”
“In all aspects of the platform, we are working to elevate the experience around giving and asking for help,” Murray says. He recognizes the diversity of needs on the platform and the potential applications of customized design across it.
“Raising funds for funeral expenses is different from fundraising for a new creative endeavor, so we want to empower our users to ask for help in a way that fits best. That could be a written story, or it could just be a TikTok-style video story.” The future of fundraising online might look even more human yet.