LifeKit, a mobile app concept designed by Anna Boyle (MDes ’21), Michelle Chou (MPS ’20), Eustina Daniluk (MPS ’20), and Nandini Nair (MDes ’21), recently won a Core77 Design Award in Consumer Technology. LifeKit makes end-of-life planning approachable, proactive, and streamlined; while also opening up opportunities to integrate into larger systems within the government, legal, health, and financial sectors.
The LifeKit app breaks down daunting planning tasks into bite-sized steps and allows users to update, authorize, and legalize their wishes at their own pace. It also prompts users at the time of life-changing events to ensure that planning is both relevant and dynamic. LifeKit makes planning a part of living, enabling better peace of mind for individuals and their loved ones.
The LifeKit Team: Michelle Chou, Eustina Daniluk, Anna Boyle & Nandini Nair
LifeKit started in the Spring of 2020 in the School of Design’s Graduate Studio 2, Dexign Futures, which is always focused around a sponsored project. Dexign Futures, which was initiated in 2013 by Peter Scupelli, current Nierenberg Associate Professor of Design and Director of Learning Environments Lab, and Arnold Wasserman (BA ’56), who was Nierenberg Professor at the time. That semester’s sponsor was the Index Project, which encourages designers to push the boundaries of design-for-good by focusing on design that solves real needs in our society.
“My proposal was that a Dexign Futures class develop design proposals fitting Index Project criteria as if they were actually submitting them to Index for judging – the Index philosophy, rules and criteria providing a challenge to think and design broadly, deeply and ‘futurely’ as well as a pre-made evaluative framework,” said Wasserman. “The work products of the teams were impressive – all the concepts provocative and challenging – approached with a high level of intellectual sophistication and analytical maturity – demonstrating a professional level of mastery of design methods and tools.”
“In the spring of 2020, our studio class was challenged to ‘Design to Improve Life,’” said Boyle. “We found that despite the diversity of life — one universal fact of existence is that it ends. Our team wanted to explore how looking at the end of life could open up opportunities to live more mindfully and sustainably in the present and contribute to an improved future beyond one's lifetime.”
“We learned that the barriers to planning include a lack of awareness, knowledge, motivation, commitment to act, and access to resources,” said Chou. “The planning process is very complex, therefore, it can be difficult to establish the necessity of routine planning when we are swept up in the movement of our everyday lives. LifeKit bridges this divide by weaving together celebration, emergency, and future thinking tasks. It aggregates memorable events and milestones shared by the user. It then provides suggestions and small nudges to help correlate these celebratory moments with corresponding goals, wishes, and legal documentation.”
“LifeKit empowers users to expand their mental model of planning to be less of a chore or a barrier, to something that is continually considered,” said Nair. “Preparing for the future is an act of love for those you care about. LifeKit is a human-centered, accessible, and, integrated platform and a vehicle for developing more resilient individuals.”
The work on LifeKit became even more relevant when the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic began. The team came to realize that the pandemic has not only changed their daily lives, it has upended our mental models of community, wellness, and the end of life.
“Searches for legal documentation such as online wills have skyrocketed, but unless we shift our mindsets to understand the importance of future thinking, it is unlikely that this interest will result in better prepared and resilient communities,” added Daniluk. “COVID or no COVID, it’s important to plan. Therefore we became very interested in exploring how we might motivate and mobilize individuals to prepare for the unexpected.”
“They took on an incredibly difficult topic that all of us have to deal with but do not want to,” said Scupelli. “Who wants to prepare for death? I was unsure of how to address that topic but encouraged them to keep going. The goal in design is the journey that people go on. They then found this awesome opportunity of how each one of us can begin to prepare for the inevitable. It was a testament to the fearlessness of the team and drive that they had to make it an awesome project even though it was a difficult topic and starting point.”
“LifeKit is particularly intriguing in the way it reframes end-of-life strategy as one milestone along a full-life trajectory,” added Wasserman. “People have difficulty thinking about near-term actions toward long-horizon goals. LifeKit offers the possibility of breaking through that veil of distance by providing a platform that links end-of-life planning to mapping, planning and tracking other salient milestones along one’s life trajectory. LifeKit also could be tuned to develop habits of mind as well as a framework for responding to foreseeable but unpredictable Wild Cards of life; e.g.: Climate Change, Pandemics, Water and Food Scarcity, Fire, Earthquake, Storm, Conflict, Social Disruption, Species Extinction, etc.”
“We felt the team really explored the theme of Design to Improve Life really well,” said Liza Chong, CEO of the Index Project. “The context of this semester was really testing for the group, for us all as a society and especially us as individuals as we all were grappling with the severity of COVID-19. Added to that, I think developing this project in the uncertainty and chaos of a pandemic was really admirable and impressive given that the students took the situation as a great platform to study and learn about bigger existential questions while getting to know each other at the same time.”
“I’m so delighted that the students won the Core77 design awards,” continued Chong. “Again this reminded us that when design solutions are addressing a real need in society with a strong focus on the user, approaching problem solving with an open and curious mind, great things can happen. The pandemic put a huge stop on many things for a while, but for this team it opened up a wide open space of an under-served need; that we need to speak about death and harder subjects! What LifeKit offers is a way to put existential matters into our own hands and make it meaningful and dignified for the user, their families and loved ones.”
Basing projects around real life sponsors tackling real life issues, like the INDEX Project, is an important approach to educating future designers.
“School projects are helpful to learn skills and some design school projects are really just vehicles for learning some fundamental skills,” said Scupelli. “Don't get me wrong these are traditional exercises invented by design masters that are necessary to learn the craft of design, but I'm guessing that to some students traditional timeless design exercises can get to feeling arbitrary and pointless. When students get to that point of wondering what is the point of learning design that is when working with a client is great. The client is in the real world and their future is based on creating the products and services that will be released. Students are excited by such real-world challenges. It also is a great opportunity to show off the skills they have learned.
“The best clients, like the Index Project, ask students to work on a topic the company or organization is trying to figure out. In short, a topic or theme that they have not figured out and are open to having fearless and courageous students explore.”
“As designers, we are able to view problems from multiple perspectives,” said Boyle. “Through our research, we found design opportunities in how we all perceive our lives over time and plan for the future. Time and the future are some of life’s most abstract concepts. Through our design research, focused on individuals, we were able to co-design opportunities that reimagined planning for the future and how we could interact with life’s moments in a more tangible and meaningful way.”
“For people that like good societal challenges, are courageous, brave, determined, hardworking, and fearless the training they receive at CMU will last them a lifetime,” added Scupelli. “The world is constantly changing and one gets trained to deal with that kind of continuous change that our alumni will face throughout their long and exemplary careers. CMU is like a candy store for curious hardworking people that want to make the world a better place.”