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Death in Design: Dealing with Sensitive Topics

As designers, we are constantly coming up with solutions that adapt to the world around us. But in a world of love, life and death, we have a duty to ensure our designs are sensitive to our users' expected and unexpected situations.

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Dealing with Sensitive Topics in Design

In the last blog post of my ethical design series, I want to explore the intricacies of handling sensitive topics and provide a few processes and examples that can help to make these experiences more beneficial and positive for our end-users.

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Dealing with sensitive topics in design: Death in UX

As a designer, you are more than likely to face some difficult ethical dilemmas during your career. In the last year alone we’ve had to deal with love, life, death, addiction, health, emergencies and a whole plethora of other sensitive topics across our UX & UI design projects. All users are different and can react to situations in completely different ways. The question is;

How do you conduct user research into these difficult areas? Harder still how do you test your product/service to evaluate its effectiveness in dealing with such issues?

Before we take a look at some of the processes I use to help handle these situations delicately but with precision, I want to share a couple of examples where sensitive topics have been handled really well, as well as where they’ve been handled really badly.

We will look at some examples in the greeting card industry, as this industry provides interesting case studies for a bunch of different sensitive topics that have directly affected members of our own team.

MoonPig Brand Banner



Moonpig is a greeting card company that provides cards for all your special occasions and unfortunate events, from birthdays & anniversaries to breakups & funerals.

In principle, this is an easy service from a user experience point of view; people buy the card that is right for them in the moment, Moonpig print it and send off for delivery.

However, from a retention point of view, a service like MoonPig needs to use the likes of email reminders to keep customers coming back. This part of the service provided one of our team members a particularly insensitive experience:

The greeting card company Moonpig had emailed me a reminder to send a birthday card to a close relative who had recently passed away. Although I understand that it’s nigh-impossible for them to anticipate this in a system that sends automated reminders, this reminder pretty much ruined my day and I haven’t been able to bring myself to use the service since.

From a user’s perspective, this experience was understandable and although there was very little to be done to avoid the situation; that’s not to say they couldn’t take action and implement systems to prevent users feeling so uncomfortable in the future.

Now let’s look at a service which handled a similar situation in a way that provided one of our team members a more positive experience.

Bloom & Wild


Bloom & Wild

The importance of anticipation and considering the space between a system and a user’s journey is incredibly important. Had Moonpig extensively thought out their email reminder service this could have been prevented, as one of our team members found with Bloom and Wild. Bloom and Wild make sending arrangements of fresh flowers with bespoke presentation boxes an easy and intuitive online experience.

I am subscribed to the Bloom and Wild Mother’s Day email reminders, but this Mother’s Day they sent me a separate email to their usual bright marketing emails. The email was very plain and very considerate.

“They addressed the fact that they understood Mother’s Day can be a very sensitive time of year and wanted to ask whether I wanted to cancel my Mother’s Day reminder before I was sent a load of personalised marketing. I thought this was a really nice way of handling a sensitive topic they have no control over.”

This shows that by understanding your users and the problems your product or service may pose to them, you can avoid making your users feel uncomfortable. So how exactly can you prevent these things from happening, what can you do to predict something that seems out of your control and what is our experience in doing this?

What methods can we use to improve the way we handle these sensitive projects?

Often many issues don’t get caught before first releasing a product or service into the wild, which is why it is incredibly important that we keep track of any issues our users are having with our digital products and platforms.

However, there is a lot we can do upfront to do our best to avoid releasing a product that ensues any insensitive experiences. We’ve worked long and hard to get a process together that will respect this and keep our products continually informed by real end-users. Here are some of the best bits:

User Testing Session

User Research

Always make sure you start by doing your research. Identifying your target market and getting to know them inside out is incredibly important. 

Observing them to understand their pain-points and how these pain-points affect them and those around them is incredibly important. This stage should be high volume and you should aim to speak to as many users as possible. User journeys are a hugely powerful tool for visualising this data in a way that’s useful during designing. 

Once you understand who your target users are and which issues they’re facing, you can begin to design a solution tailored to them, not just a top-level solution that hasn’t considered edge-cases and your audiences contextual scenarios.

In the context of sensitive subjects:

Sometimes this can be a difficult problem to approach. You have to choose whether to interview users or whether to observe them from afar.

For example, when researching an app that handles anonymous mortality rates users will likely be more than happy talking about their experiences in an interview. Whereas researching an app for those grieving the loss of a relative, would make talking to users directly far more difficult and sensitive, so we’d choose to approach it differently.

Digital strategy and consultancy

The Space Between

Throughout your design phase, you should never forget the research you’ve done up front and should continually reference back to this to ensure your solutions not only fit your users needs but fit within the ecosystem of other products they use.

A couple of ways that we do this as a team is to:

  1. Make detailed wireframe and high fidelity user flows that detail exactly how the app will work, ensuring this will fit in with the user journey maps we identified during our research section.
  2. Go through our designs, prototypes and builds and pass them against a set of ethical heuristics that help us avoid designing anything that is not in the users best interest.
The Stampy UI Kit

Performance Tracking & Analytics

Once our products have been released we have to keep on top of how they are performing and how our users are responding to them. One of the most effective ways to do this is using an analytics service such as Google Analytics 360

Analytics can give us granular levels of detail about our users and how they are using our products. Allowing us to track whether our initial target audience research is correct and how it may change over time.

We can also extract behaviour analysis of how our users behave in our app, tracking drop out/bounce rates and targeting the exact pages and even areas of pages that are causing pain-points. We can loop back and do some more user testing to understand why they’re experiencing these issues and how we can design solutions to fix them.

Analytics in UX Design

Designing an experience that deals with the death of a pet

For this, we will focus on one particular case study where we were incredibly driven to overcome a delicate UX challenge: the loss of a pet. I also want to give a massive shoutout to James Seddon (UI Designer) and James Marriott (Creative Team Lead) for letting me draw upon their relative areas of expertise and experience.

Given that we had all had different experiences with losing a pet and dealing with death in UX. The first piece of research we did into this area was to read the pamphlets given out at veterinary practices around coping with the death of a pet.

Giving us a good steer on how the practices themselves handled the topic and an idea of the best linguistics and semantics that our app, experience and communications should be using.

Dealing with Pet Death Pamphlet

We then posed some user interviews, which was a difficult topic to make people feel comfortable to talk about. We spoke to a sample of users, who had lost pets within the last few years, about some of the ideas we had for flows within the app, most notably around alerting our client of the sad news and dealing with pets’ profiles within the app. 

The feedback was really interesting, and proved invaluable. It was interesting to see a mix of user types, mainly categorised into: hugely traumatised long-term by the experience of losing a pet (who would be hugely affected by a bad app experience), traumatised at the time of losing the pet but copes with it quickly, and finally those that are sad as they are accepting the death of their pet but wouldn’t find communicating this in the app a huge problem.

The most notable feedback was around the use of linguistics, using terms such as “hide pet profile” upon the loss of a pet. This is something that some user’s felt was really harsh and cold. We ended up playing around with the flow moving it from toggling show and hide to a single checkbox asking if you would like the profile to remain showing. We moved the ability to alert our client that the pet was now deceased into a section on the pet profile called “update us of changes to” pet’s name. 

One of the biggest challenges I faced was making sure what I proposed would cater and be sensitive to everyone, people think and believe so differently, it was a tough one to play out- making sure the terminology and copy is correct and then how we present the idea of death to the mass.

– James Seddon UI Designer

We also tested all the standard features and flows within the app such as onboarding and booking appointments at some of our client’s practices and conducted some contextual observation to witness people’s day-to-day pain points at the practice. It was during one of these sessions that witnessing one certain experience brought home the gravity of losing a pet and made us resolve to make this experience as painless as possible with the app.

We witnessed a pet owner bring in their pet for a euthanasia appointment. The atmosphere of the waiting room we were working in shifted from friendly chatter to a grave, sympathetic quiet as we heard a broken man say a stoic goodbye to his companion. We realised that this was the context that somebody might be opening the app in and that we had to do everything we could to make the app feel sympathetic and supportive.

Vet Practice in Surgery

We had to go deep to solve this, considering how almost all screens would behave differently throughout the app for users who wanted the pet to be persistently shown to preserve happy memories to a user who wanted to avoid reminders of their recent loss.

The modifications we had to make range from the profile being shown in a memorial state or hidden, to the settings showing the pet in a different section, to the bookings and advice omitting the selection of the pet.

Ongoing notifications would also have to change and a special case would have to be put in to intervene in how the system could show a previous appointment for euthanasia. We originally wanted to have it handled completely over the phone and out of the app but there were certain things that prevented this being possible.

Our client was open with it, acknowledged it was important but wasn’t sure of the best way to handle it so were open to solutions; this and only this was the reason we were able to conduct so much research and put so much effort into designing the experience in a way we could ensure provided the best experience.

creative team

How to handle sensitive topics in design

All in all, there are a number of approaches, processes, actions and steps you can take to deal with death and other sensitive topics in design. By ensuring you have an established process around finding the best way to do so, you’ll ensure you’re always handling communications and providing an experience that benefits your end-users.

Top tips for handling sensitive topics in design:

#1: Research your users and understand exactly what they want and how they want to get there.

#2: Look at the space between and consider where, when and how your users want to interact with your platform.

#3: Use performance analytics and data to inform decisions based on how existing users are interacting and behaving during their experience.


Drop us a message if you want to discuss dealing with death in design or have a similar issue that needs addressing. And make sure you check out the rest of my ethical design series!

Published on January 23, 2020, last updated on May 26, 2023

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