ritual design

Redesigning the American Wedding

The conventional wedding experience doesn’t fit modern American values and lifestyles. How can we use service design to reimagine it?

In the summer of 2014, as one after another of my 30- and 40-something friends decided it was finally time, I found myself invited to four very different weddings. One was a 30 minute City Hall ceremony in New York City, followed by a casual lunch. Another took place during an outdoor gathering of Burning Man enthusiasts on the Oregon coast, and included a smoked lamb feast and a silent disco. Another was held in the groom’s parents’ backyard, and had all the trappings of a classic American small town wedding—except that the best man was a woman in a tuxedo. In fact, of all the weddings I’ve attended over the past few years, not one was purely “conventional.”

In one way or another, each wedding had been redesigned to actively challenge basic assumptions about formality, attire, activities or vows, often at the cost of great effort and frustration.

From a designer’s perspective, this is a good indication that the American wedding is a service experience that’s failed to adapt to the needs of its audience.

The convention of marriage already faces challenges in the US: not from external forces, but from shifting perspectives among marriage-aged Americans. According to a 2010 Pew Research study, only 51% of US adults are married today, down from 72% in 1960. Yet despite this decline, young adults still value social rituals—especially those, like marriage, that reinforce and celebrate personal relationships. For today’s increasingly mobile, career-minded, urban couples, finding a partner with whom they can build a life is still a powerful experience, and the ensuing union is well worth celebrating. The traditional family-directed church wedding, though, makes assumptions about social and economic circumstances that are often no longer true.

Approaching this as a service design problem means examining the entire journey taken by the “customer” (in this case, the couple and their guests), identifying failings or friction points, and looking to parallel services for ways to improve.

Here are a few ways we could save the modern wedding.

All of them draw on familiar, existing activities from other fields, and have broader implications for the design of social rituals — especially those that bring together large, diverse groups of people.

Crowdsource the party.

For many couples, the best part of the wedding is that the maddening preparation is over. They must contend with the logistics that have always made weddings such a chore—seating, feeding, entertaining and accommodating dozens or hundreds of people—plus the fact that our communities today are more widespread than ever, both in location and in social norms. Today, it’s not unusual to have friends and family scattered across the planet, from conservative, meat-and-potatoes rural grandparents to a vegan photographer cousin who lives in Berlin.

For most of us, this is a once (maybe twice) in a lifetime event, that we quickly learn to plan and execute, then forget.

How might engaged couples benefit from the knowledge of friends and family who’ve already gone through it?

Crowdsourcing is already a powerful tool for channeling a community’s resources and experience to help small groups with specific needs.

What if there was a Yelp-like digital service to help couples choose venues and wedding-related services?

What if an entire wedding could be crowdsourced, with a platform that invites guests to contribute time, money or resources to make it happen?

This could be broader than just turning the reception dinner into a potluck. A well-designed, wedding-specific organizational platform could ensure that no detail is overlooked, help assign tasks to those able to complete them, and ultimately result in a ritual with real significance. For today’s cash-strapped but enthusiastically DIY young adults, a guest’s offering of food, music, logistical planning or plain old manual labor could bring far more meaning to the event than a gift-wrapped blender.

Turn the ceremony into a journey.

Once upon a time, most of the family and friends who might attend our wedding lived in the same town. Today, they could be anywhere. When our social links depend more on email, Facebook and Skype chats than in-person visits, does a wedding ceremony that expects people to travel from all over the country (or world) still make sense?

Many couples already hold multiple wedding celebrations in multiple cities, to better accommodate their far-flung communities; what if this was formalized? Imagine replacing the wedding ceremony with a “wedding trip” that has the couple traveling like a rock band on tour.

Stopping in several cities that have personal meaning for the couple, or provide easy access for friends and family, makes it easy to turn the wedding celebration into a series of smaller events with the opportunity for real quality time.

An online platform could help the couple and guests plan an optimal itinerary, and invite friends and family to contribute a portion of what they would have spent on travel, to offset the couple’s expenses.

Use technology to bridge the distance.

Given their mobility and technical savvy, it’s no surprise that many young couples have tried using video chat technology to include distant friends and family in their wedding ceremonies — but the results are often disappointing. Issues of bandwidth, resolution, layout and sound quality are already issues with live video chat; combine these with the normal pressure and confusion of a big wedding, and you have a recipe for anxiety and distraction.

One potential solution could be a national or international chain of restaurants or event venues with dedicated rooms specifically for long distance, big screen video chat. At an agreed time, wedding guests in multiple cities could meet at their local location of the chain, and enjoy a meal and celebration while interacting with the bride, groom and other guests at the main location.

While less immersive than attending the ceremony in person, this is could be an opportunity to share an experience with loved ones who might not otherwise be able to attend — or who might have felt obligated to, despite being unable to afford it, or uncomfortable traveling so far.

Provide more structured, non-verbal interaction.

“I would never go to a wedding alone. I tried it once, for an old college friend, but I barely knew anyone and spent the entire weekend having short, awkward conversations…”

Perhaps you’ve attended a wedding where you knew nobody, as a favor to your partner, or even braved one alone. The short interactions and forced significance of the wedding event can sometimes make them as stressful as the after-party at a professional conference. How might we design a wedding that minimizes superficial talk, and replaces it with something more meaningful — even a chance at genuine connection?

Taking on the Challenge of Purposeful Aging

How service design could link two of America’s most isolated populations.

Have you ever imagined how you might spend a typical day in your later years? Perhaps it involves sitting in a rocking chair with a giant mug of tea, reading the newspaper while listening to Leonard Cohen. Maybe you’re about to head to a board meeting at your local art museum (to feed your new, post-retirement interest in art curation), then spend the rest of the afternoon tending your huge vegetable garden? That, at least, is my personal version of happy future days.

That bubble suddenly popped earlier this year, when I visited a couple of retirement centers and volunteer organizations, as part of a research effort for a service design project. A team of us from Ziba had the opportunity to interview newly retired people, directors and program managers at volunteer organizations, and volunteers and directors at a community college that offers classes for elders. It was a personally eye-opening and slightly depressing experience, which has kept me awake for many nights since. It’s also led to some insights about retired life, and ultimately to a surprising design solution for those of us who dream of a day like the one I just described.

The reality of being old.

First, an abundance of free time doesn’t necessarily equal happiness. As a generation that never stopped working towards a goal, many Baby Boomers lack the essential life skill of how to enjoy free time. Many retirees today report feeling lost and isolated, lacking a reason to get up in the morning, and in danger of falling into depression. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, depression affects more than 6.5 million of the 35 million Americans aged 65 years or older. Yes, there is a honeymoon period where retirees go off to travel the world (especially those with means to), or take care of their grandchildren. But there will be even more free time available after doing all of that for a year or two. The popularity of classes and meet-up groups aimed at “finding a life purpose for retirees” is clear evidence. Complete freedom is not complete without a sense of belonging and purpose in life.

Second, let’s say they turn to volunteerism, in search of more flexibility and freedom than going back to work. The world of volunteering turns out to be fiercely competitive. As a “new” old person entering an established system, recent retirees often find themselves in the position of taking over an older volunteer’s job. Older volunteers might be shakier and slower, and the work can be mundane, yet the job the new applicant is attempting to take over is giving purpose to someone else’s life, leading to dirty looks and worse.

Even if the position comes through, the work is often under-stimulating, and always unpaid. Many of those we interviewed ended up in positions that didn’t match their skill set or schedule, were unchallenging, and didn’t provide the social interaction they’d hoped for.

A service platform that connects generations.

As I conducted these interviews, I came to realize these problems closely resembled those I’ve come across in interviews with young freelancers and startup entrepreneurs. Those who decide to leave their full time job and enter a life of self-employment can often feel lost and isolated, especially when suddenly separated from the school or company that once provided structure. They too want to find meaning in life and stay connected with their peers and with society—just like the retirees. This is more than just an analogous group with a similar problem. It’s two groups in exactly the same situation. And they have a lot to offer each other.

Visualize two Post-it notes in your mind. On the blue Post-its, list out the needs of these two groups. They both have a lot of unstructured time that needs to be filled, they both want meaning and purpose, and they want to stay connected. Another blue Post-it records their motivation to give back to the community.

On the yellow Post-its, list assets and resources. Retirees have a lot of experience in their field, and some might even have interests in investment and some extra savings. Among the younger group, especially Millennials, many are broke and have little experience, but bring an abundance of passion and tightly focused technical expertise.

This is a classic service design thinking moment: why don’t we place those two post-it notes next to each other, put a circle it around and call it an “opportunity space”? Help those two generations connect and share their resources, and in the mean time, design a better future for America? A kind of OKCupid for pairing the Encore Generation with Millennial start ups.

In practice, this could take several forms. A volunteer exchange, for example, could give tech-savvy 20-somethings the opportunity to share technology expertise with retirees in exchange for financial advice. Another possibility would be to borrow from Project Breaker, a nonprofit that brings 17-24 year olds together with industry experts, who walk them through a creative problem-solving process, and teach the entrepreneurial skills necessary to transform ideas into businesses. How about a tuition-free 14 day intensive workshop that brings qualified start-up entrepreneurs and retirees of relevant background together?

Taking a lesson from the Sharing Economy.

We live in an age of sharing economies, where power comes from matching apparent needs with often ignored resources. This approach has already been successfully used with cars (Getaround) and housing (Airbnb), but much less so with people. By recognizing the overlapping needs of these two groups, we can empower both to take more active roles in their society, and to continue giving in a way that fits their needs and lifestyle. Just like many other shared economy platforms, the exchange doesn’t have to come from a business.

Let’s start one today. Any volunteers?