We Design Memories  

This is an essay original written and published by Stemmings.

It’s surprising how bad people are in the memory department, at least in the details. It’s even more surprising given how we think we are awesome at remembering experiences, life, products, friends, etc. The brain is an elegant machine designed for a purpose, specifically to recall important lessons and experiences. Even so, there is so much to remember and such an unfathomable number of details to take in; the brain must have a system of shortcuts to do it. How could it not? Part of the shortcut methodology is aimed at distilling all of the sensory input and experiences into useful data. In other words, memory is trying to summarize rather than record verbatim.

Recently, there has been an explosion in popularity of user experience (UX) as a subject and even a separate discipline. In product and software development, you can’t take two steps without hearing the term “user experience” or some variation thereof. Despite this focus, it feels like no one understands what the anatomy of an experience is. I hear about details like button colors, rounded corners, verbiage, screen-flow, icons and so on.

Certainly, details contribute to great experiences. However, almost 100% of these details need to be condensed and associated to form the memory of the experience.

An exercise I have always loved in product design is word-subtraction. Write out a description of a product in say 500 characters. Now do it with 300, 200, 100 and so on. It forces removal of increasingly less important details to distill the principal meaning of the description. Memories aren’t much different. It really makes me think about what details I choose to focus on when designing. This model means that the user experience is the memory of using the product not the process of using it. It’s an important distinction.

It means a button’s shade of blue doesn’t exactly affect the experience. It means having a mind-blowing on-boarding process with poor follow-through is still a bad memory. Events that happened even a week ago are shockingly vague and inaccurate. How was that Michelin-rated steakhouse you went to last week? It’s likely that the details of how good the server was or what kind of plates the restaurant had are lost to time. As long as those details weren’t notably terrible or disruptively out of place, they were probably forgotten or filled in with past memory data. The memory says the place was quiet and classy; the wine selection was thoughtful; the steak was good enough; and the cotton candy served for dessert was a fun surprise. In short, experience is cumulative.

I am not saying that all the little details aren’t important. They are. Details contribute to cohesion. Details are only remembered if they tripped the shortcut flags in the memory. The iPhone is an excellent example of details that add up to powerful memory. The rendering style of interface elements and small decisions such as smooth transitions and features that “just work” add up to a positive experience. Cohesive experiences require that every element is contributing to a team effort. Teamwork demands smart and thoughtful compromises. It sounds good to say that every piece must be 100% awesome but if everything is on the same level than no hierarchy or contrast exists.

A product is going to be boiled down to the memory impression it leaves. This is characterized by mental shortcut flags. The most common are first impressions, “WOW” moments and endings. An average customer’s mind is working to make important associations with these endpoints to recognize practical patterns and potentially useful details. A simplification would be that short-term memory needs to make decisions about what information is valuable enough to make it into long-term memory. These shortcuts can be powerful. Imagine this scenario: a customer is checking out of a hotel. Until check-out the stay has been ideal. The customer reviews the final invoice and discovers that an amenity which he thought was free was not. Now an extra few hundred dollars has accumulated. He asks the manager to remove the charges but the manager is unable to do so. The customer begrudgingly pays the invoice and goes on his way. Its likely that this customer will use the ending as a memory marker and will not recall it with fond sentiments.

Most anything can potentially become part of a customer’s experience. However, focusing on the parts of the process that are far more likely to be remembered and effectively define the experience helps make it clear what elements should be in focus, what battles are worth fighting and what compromises are valuable. Remember, “user experience” is just a fancy term for a memory. What will your customer remember?

Photo via Ulf Bodin


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