Handling Death Gracefully in Digital Experiences

Programming - Apr 19, 2024

The last few years have been difficult.

My father had a stroke that left him with a tracheostomy and bedridden. In April 2020, we took him into our home. We were his primary caregivers, nurses, and respiratory therapists until he passed last October.

Shortly after my father’s death, our fifteen-year-old dog got worse. He became incontinent. His back legs were so weak that we’d often find him unable to get back on his feet. We said goodbye to him last week.

So we’ve been dealing with our fair share of loss lately. And to make matters worse, we’ve encountered applications that handle death poorly and add to our pain.

My sister organized a lovely and touching celebration of life for our father. She rented a space that had a rustic feel. It would have felt familiar to our father who grew up in Southern Oregon.

Because we weren’t hosting it at a funeral home, the task of sending the invitations fell to my sister. She crafted an invitation on Evite.

The Evite invitation for my father’s Celebration of Life last November. I miss him. I think about him every day.

Things went awry when my sister sent the invitation.

Screenshot of a text message that says, "Evite: Exciting news! Jason Grigsby, you are invited to "Celebrating Jan Grigsby". Let Tamara Grigsby know if you can make it and get all the details at…" The text message contains a link to an Evite web page. The important parts of the link have been blurred.

Exciting news Jason! Your dad died.

My sister was aghast. There was no preview of the text that Evite was going to send. We sent a quick apology to guests. And I swore never to trust Evite again.

Our dogs rarely get out of our yard, but when they do, it is tramautic. As our older dog Primo’s hearing started failing, we worried that if he got out of the yard, that he wouldn’t be able to hear us calling for him. So we purchased Fi smart dog collars.

Primo was a very good boy.

After we put Primo to sleep, I tried to cancel his Fi subscription. The option to cancel was buried in a few layers deep in the menus, but I eventually found it. The cancellation process was terrible.

Unfortunately, I didn’t take screenshots of my experience so I repeated the steps using other dog, Coco, so I could document the user experience.

Our dog has died. Which option should I choose?

There are six options for why we are cancelling our subscription. None of the options acknowledge that someone may have lost their pet.

From the bad options, I picked “My dog doesn’t run away.” It was sad, but true.

Fi proceeded to tell me that running away isn’t the only value Fi provides. I had to click through three screens explaining its other virtues.

Three screenshots with the titles, "Fi reveals more than just location," "Decoding Luna's (lack of activity)," and "Better health outcomes with Fi." The story of Luna is about a dog that had swallowed a rock and when FI detected a big decrease in activity, it helped identify the problem sooner. 

All of these are great features and why I like Fi, but they won't help Primo.

The first two screens only have a Next button. The final screen has a prominent Keep Membership button and then in smaller text, an option to "Continue with Cancellation."

I almost fell for hitting the “Keep Membership” button on the third screen, but instead I tapped the smaller “Continue with Cancellation” option after which my cancellation was immediately processed.

Just kidding. Of course that’s not what happened. That would be too easy. Instead, I was offered a free month.

In addition to offering a free month, they also added a photo of the dog we had just made the difficult decision to put to sleep. Oof.

Again, I found the small “Continue with Cancellation” option. And again, Fi tried to convince me to continue the subscription for my dead dog.

The next screen said, "Are you sure? This will create a customer support ticket to end your subscription with Fi. There will be a $20 reactivation fee if you decide to restart your subscription if you cancel."

There are two buttons: "Yes, continue" and "No, go back."
Notice how on every previous screen the button to proceed to cancel was on the bottom and was light in color? On this final screen, they are reversed.

Am I sure? Yes, I’m damn sure.

That was the final step in the app. But all I had accomplished was opening a ticket to close the subscription. The process moved to email:

Subject: [Fi Support] We received your Cancellation Request!

Hi Jason,

Thank you for contacting Fi Customer Success!

Just to let you know, your request has been logged. We’ll be sure to email you within a few days to complete your membership cancellation. You will need to confirm your cancellation with our team.

In the meantime, your membership will be active, and you will continue to have access to the Fi app.

Fi Support 🐕

The email informs me that not only will it be a few days to complete my membership cancellation, but that I will need to confirm the cancellation with their team. Apparently, finding the buried option and clicking through six screens in the app wasn’t enough to prove that I really wanted to cancel.

Then there are the parts of the email that grated on me.

“Thank you for contacting Fi Customer Success!” Why are you so happy? My dog just died.

“In the meantime, your membership will be active, and you will continue to have access to the Fi app.” Is that supposed to reassure me?

I was furious. I was also sad and emotionally drained. I shouldn’t have tried to do this the same day we put Primo to sleep. I fired off a terse email:

We had to put Primo to sleep today. Why do you make it so hard to cancel? Why wasn’t there an option for the loss of the pet? It was a terrible experience. Don’t try to upsell when we’re dealing with a loss. 

When I wrote this article and realized I wanted to quote what I wrote to Fi’s support team, I feared rereading the email. I thought I had been a jerk. But given the circumstances, I was reasonably cordial.

To Fi’s credit, a support person followed up and apologized. Primo’s subscription has been cancelled.

And we’re still using Fi for Coco because other than this experience, Fi has been everything we hoped it would be. Seriously, I highly recommend Fi for everything up until the moment you need to cancel.

Both of these poor experiences could have been easily avoided. Evite could provide a preview of text messages before it sends them. Fi could provide a cancellation option for when a pet dies.

These experiences remind me of the lessons in Design for Real Life by Sara Wachter-Boettcher and Eric Meyer. They share similar examples from Facebook and other organizations being similarly insensitive. And they provide tools and tactics for how to minimize the chances you will add to someone’s grief.

A photo of a purple book emblazoned with Design for Real Life sitting on a wood table.

When I started writing this article, I didn’t plan to end it with a book recommendation. I was angry and sad. I wanted to share what happened to me so I could convince you to take a second look at any user experiences you have influence over.

But just sharing my experience doesn’t seem like it is enough. We like to provide concrete steps to improve web experiences. But even if I was qualified to address these topics, things are still a bit too raw. I don’t have the energy to write a list of things you should consider.

Instead, I realized that more than anything, I wished that someone at Evite and Fi had read Design for Real Life and had taken the book’s lessons to heart. If they had, then I’m certain my grieving family would have been better supported.

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