Are there any common practices for handling the death of a user? How should the claim of a death be verified? How should the deceased user be "visualized" or otherwise indicated on their profile/contributions/etc? Should their profile be disabled or their personal data be removed?
It's an interesting question, but not one that has to be dealt with directly.
You should allow people to delete their information / accounts at any time. Passwords can be reset if you have access to an email account, and so as long as loved ones can gain access to the email account, this is not something that you have to deal with directly.
Email access can often be gained with lots of paperwork and proof. Gmail allow this for example. So I would argue that it is better not to try and deal with this yourself.
If you were to choose to deal with it directly, you would come up against a lot of legal issues, such as:
- getting proof that the person is actually dead
- determining who you should give the access to (which is normally up to the executor of an estate)
- liability should you make a mistake
Overall, trying to handle this yourself adds complexity, security concerns, and legal liability. While you would gain very little in return.
Then there is the question of whether it is appropriate. Take this site. If I were to die, should all my content be deleted? I think not. Even if my next of kin think that it should be.
The only place where I've seen something similar is with Facebook's Memorialization Request where the Memorialization where users themselves need to report the demised providing proof of death (Unless the user becomes a Zombie and acts on his own behalf).
This Time Article (dated Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2009) says:
On the UX side of things:
However I think the service only works for legal proposes, as I've known a two or three people that have died, but the profiles haven't been memorialized, as if people were not aware of the service, or they don't feel ownership of the issue and do not report it, as it is likely to leave a bad aftertaste.
Not many services portray the sentiment of "profile" as well as facebook does, I don't think that many services would benefit from Memorialization, as they are not as closely attached to the person. I think this would depend on how active the engagement within the community happens in a particular service. Think for example UX.SE even though some of the people in this Q&A know each other due to the constant interaction, Memorializing a profile in this site wouldn't provide any extra value.
It's important to remark that Memorialization might be more important to handle in consumer web 2.0 portals where close personal engagement happens and not in the case of corporate or more cold environments.
Two examples from Dutch communities: both Tweakers and Partyflock make it possible for friends or relatives to send and e-mail requesting to memorialize profiles. Both websites request a form of proof, such as an obituary or memorial card, to prevent pranks.
Tweakers and Partyflock both have an index of memorialized profiles. Tweakers adds a ✝ symbol (with date of death tooltip on mouse-over) next to the user name, while Partyflock adjusts the profile with date of death and the ability to post condoleances. As a long time user of Tweakers I can add certain account info (e.g. e-mail address, IM accounts) is hidden, the ability to send private messages to the account is disabled and the user will not be listed on the birthday list anymore. The last one seems obvious enough, but forgetting such details is extremely embarrassing.
There's also a site called Ziggur (which also is from the Netherlands) where users can leave a will regarding their online accounts. Their FAQ says they work with large websites and will also try to contact sites they don't have a partnership with. Ziggur has both free and paid accounts.
I will state it this way: a person can die, an avatar (digital representation of a person) can't. A person has two states: alive and death. An avatar / account can be active or inactive or removed.
So a good approach can be to restrict users to show some activity for a given period. This means that if no activity is shown, the avatar becomes inactive and must be explicit activated, or can be explicitly removed.
Main argument is: persons and avatars/accounts are not the same. The relation between the two is respectively 1 - n.
A great question and undiscovered country for modern generations. I can share my personal user experience. A dear friend of mine recently passed away. Her profile is still active on facebook. I am comforted by it's presence and by the people posting notes and pictures to it. Right now her profile's active state is very healthy for friends and family. No doubt at some point it will become stale and macabre. Also, her husband called me on her cell phone two weeks after she died and I found that disconcerting when I saw her name on the display.
Regardless, in user experience practice, I follow the principle of not playing referee. There is nothing that demands that you HAVE to do anything if a member dies. Just like in the scheduling software I work on, you can book a new appointment in the past. I fought for that to be unrestricted. Happens to be useful.
The facebook policy seems relevant for such a large user base. But in a thriving community, the news will be there for itself. If they are paying users, the bills will stop being paid and the account suspended. Otherwise, a perfectly good user experience process is to do nothing.
Here's an example of something that works for a particular community. Metafilter chooses to put a note on the deceased person's profile page:
Metafilter is a very social website where people care personally about each other, and a member suggested this feature. It's a way of honoring the deceased person (and reducing confusion for other people looking at their contributions), and often the note includes a link to a memorial thread about the person.
Google seems to use this, called the "Inactive Account Manager".
In short, the user can set dates regarding when they believe being "away" or "passed on" represents in terms of the last sign-in, and as such, take action, whether it be informing acquaintances and family about a situation or passing digital assets to another user.
I had the situation of having to use the memorialization feature on Facebook for a friend. I also had to contact LinkedIn to have his profile removed. I had to provide details (online) of friend's passing (obit), dates, and so on. He left no instructions as to how his online presence was to be handled.
Possibly one way to do this is to a) Ask users on sign-up how they would like their presence to be handled in the event of their demise:
- memorialization with redirect to alternative contact (next of kin etc) or link to obit.
other possibilities, badging indicating the user has passed away on profile, replacement of their image with an icon indicating user has passed.
I would engage in user research on this.could be interesting cultural aspects to it too.
This is a bit late answer but...
There are articles released on the subject which use the concept of thanatosensitivity to address the issues caused by the death of a user.
The first paper on the subject is Massimi & Charise - Dying, Death, and Mortality: Towards Thanatosensitivity in HCI.