UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 867 September 14, 2012

Should We Focus on User Experience?

In the next seven minutes or so, this article hopes to convince you that our current notion of UX design mistakenly focuses on experience, and that we should go one step further and focus on the memory of an experience instead.

Studies of behavioral economics have changed my entire perspective on UX design, causing me to question basic tenets. This has led to ponderings like: “Is it possible that trying to create ‘great experiences’ is pointless?” Nobel Prize-winning research seems to hint that it is.

Via concrete examples, additional research sources, and some initial how-to tips, I aim to illustrate why and how we should recalibrate our UX design processes.

Imagine Two Scenarios

Imagine you’re on holiday, traveling overseas. Excitedly, you board your flight. You slip into your seat. You flip through the entertainment system and perhaps watch a movie. Some uneventful hours later, you land at your destination. You debark and are relieved to retrieve your luggage, fully intact. Then, you head into the unknown! You manage to navigate yourself to your hotel. Luckily, a room is reserved for you. You enter, drop your keys and luggage for a quick inspection. Finally, you let yourself fall onto the bed for a moment of rest. But, you are curious about this new country you’re in, and you don’t wait long before heading out again...

Chances are, this travel-scenario will feel somewhat familiar to you. Perhaps it even brings back memories of a specific vacation. Most vacations tend to be unforgettable experiences. The experience of traveling, after all, is the core reason why we travel, no?

How would you retell the story of an Amazon visit?

Now imagine you’re at home, relaxed and having a look around Amazon. You quickly find what you came for and add it to your shopping cart. Then, your attention is drawn to another item. You skim its page. Perhaps you read a review. You decide to add it to your shopping cart as well. Then you proceed to checkout. A few buttons later, your order is made. A few days later, your order arrives, fully intact. All is well.

I’ve just described two experiences—very different in nature, but both experiences. And thus, both, in theory, could be designed. And both lead to the same question:

Should We Focus on User Experience?

When thinking back about an experience (a voyage or an Amazon purchase, for example) are we truly capable of accurate mental replay? After all, we can only recall what we encoded into memory. If an experience was great, will we remember it as such? And if we remember an experience as a positive one, did we truly experience it as such at the time?

And if these two perspectives do diverge, then, which one is most important: the experience, or its memory? Ironically, in terms of user experience, only memories matter. I’ll back this claim up with help from Nobel Prize-winning research about how we experience the world around us that has ramifications for UX design; not just on a philosophical level, but on a practical, day-to-day level as well.

Perhaps you’ve heard it said: “If a user needs to fill out a form, it should go as quickly a possible.” Well, it turns out that isn’t always true. The amount of time it (or anything) takes is entirely irrelevant, because we simply do not encode time spans into memory. The way we experience things and the way we remember things are truly two separate cognitive processes guided by different laws.

The inconvenience for UX is that all of our decisions are made based on memories. Unfortunately, UX design focuses on the experience part, while a great experience does not necessarily get remembered as such. UX design should be a function of the memories it creates.

We should design for memories, but obviously we cannot design actual memories. We can only hope to imprint positive memories via the UX we design, day-to-day. But for our UX design processes to effectively refocus on the true end goal—the memories, not the mere experiences—we should first thoroughly understand how our memory works.

Pioneering Academic Research

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman is the first non-economist ever to have won a Nobel Prize in Economics (2002). Kahneman is also noted as the founding father of behavioral economics. In his long career, working primarily at Princeton, he has performed truly groundbreaking research into many of our psychological quirks (endowment, priming, prospect theory, etc.).

In a talk at TED, he highlighted some difficulties encountered when researching happiness and mental well-being that lead to the observation that we all have two distinct selves: our experiencing self and our remembering self. These two selves are very, very different, acting almost as opposites which are “made happy by different things.” The core difference is that all decisions are made by our remembering self. Our experiencing self “has no vote whatsoever.”

Prof. Kahneman describes how we choose between memories of experiences, not experiences

That TED video struck a chord with me. For, was it possible that UX design is kind of missing the point? Is creating “great experiences” pointless?! The notion changed my entire perspective on UX design. I started researching this further and got a chance to speak about it at EuroIA in Paris and the IA Summit in Denver with a presentation titled “On why we should NOT focus on UX.”

Kahneman obviously didn’t mean to study UX design, but it’s striking how his conclusions apply to UX. A return visit to Amazon, after all, is a conscious decision. So is recommending something to a friend. Neither decision is made by our experiencing self, but by our remembering self. But what makes these selves so different?

First, it’s important to understand the concept of “psychological present,” or the “now.” It has been described as “the duration of an experiental process and estimated (…) to last between 100 milliseconds and approximately five seconds with an average length of two to three seconds.” (See “Spontaneous confabulations, disorientation, and the processing of ‘now’,” by Prof. Armin Schnider.)

The “now” is distinguished from periods shorter than 100 milliseconds, “which are perceived as instantaneous, and from periods longer than five seconds, which are thought to involve long-term memory.”

Therefore, if something does not get encoded into memory in the time frame of two to three seconds, it is lost forever. In fact, most of what we experience is lost forever since we encode only a tiny fraction of specific details.

Think back about that holiday scenario, how much do you truly remember of any past vacation? It will only be very specific events. By definition, it is impossible to recall the experience of traveling. The problem is that our experiencing self lives in the “now” and those experiences are extremely volatile. Thinking back, we can never judge an experience, only the picture constructed by the bits we remember.

Let’s try to apply this to a concrete issue: When designing, should we rely on “conventions” or not? Conventions are great for making something blend in; making it fit with what we consider “normal”. However, convention-based design also tends to become unremarkable/unmemorable.

BBC sketch parodies phony discounts; or how our knowledge and framing influences decision making

In an almost dictatorial way, our remembering self selectively picks what parts of an experience it wants to remember. And later, it makes its decisions based on those memories. But, the impact of memories—or knowledge as a type of memory—on decision-making works the other way as well. As Dan Ariely, another behavioral economist (MIT), points out in his book Predictably Irrational, “Knowledge does not simply inform. It changes the experience. It realigns your senses.”

A silly sketch from The Armstrong & Miller Show (BBC) beautifully illustrates how missing knowledge about the full price of garden pots can make people vulnerable to irresistible sales. (Think Groupon.) When designing for memorability instead of the mere experience, it is important to take into account your audience’s presumed existing knowledge, as it will color the experience. But most important will be to first carefully pinpoint which elements you would like most to be remembered (like your USP, or the price tag) or forgotten (like the experience of a long annoying form, or the price tag).

Next, let’s try to picture how focusing on memory instead of experience would impact the design process.

Practical Implications and Applications

The idea that attention to memory is important is not new. Don Norman has talked about it and David Maister (The Psychology of Waiting Lines) touched on it way back in 1985! Still, the idea that we should focus on memory instead of experience hardly seems mainstream.

While shifting the focus to memory, UX design will still remain important, but it will require a different kind of UX design, focused on the memories it aims to impress. Too often, I hear design discussions stop prematurely, sticking to the creation of “great experiences” for the sake of the experiences—like recipes explaining how to buy all ingredients, but not how to prepare the actual dish.

Left hungry for practical guidelines on how to design for memorability, there’s no choice but to start research on how our memory works. It’s a fascinating, but complex domain, and the model presented by Chip and Dan Heath in Made To Stick gives a great taste of how to make an idea memorable, or “sticky,” using six criteria:

Simple

Umbrella Today? and, obviously, Google Search are great examples of simplicity. Seems a no-brainer, but as any UX designer with some experience knows, simplicity is extremely hard to execute. It takes discipline, team alignment, and strong management to truly remain focused on the core essence.

Unexpected

If something is unexpected, chances are it will attract attention because it doesn’t fit with what we consider to be “normal”. The resulting curiosity may then persuade someone to spend a bit more time examining it. Take Silverback's original leafs parallax trick, or many examples mentioned on Little Big Details, as evidence.

An extra benefit could be that those who have discovered the “Easter egg” may feel they are in the know, and may get an urge to share that secret.

Concrete

As Einstein put it: “If I can’t picture it, I can’t understand it.” Concreteness is extremely important and is closely related to the issue of existing knowledge. For maximum cognitive ease (and encoding), is it best to explain and present the subject using concepts or metaphors your audience is already familiar with. Global Rich List does a good job of this, as do well-made info-graphics.

Credible

Already relatively established, perhaps largely thanks to the work of Stanford’s BJ Fogg, credibility plays a particularly critical role in the early stages of an encounter, when we, in a matter of seconds, conclude whether to invest additional energy or bluntly move on. Here, aesthetic design plays a major role. You can see credibility successfully established at Kickstarter or any mature e-commerce platform citing respected clients or as-seen-in media.

Emotional

Plenty of great articles exist on the why and how of emotion in design, most notably perhaps by Mailchimp’s Aarron Walter in his book Designing for Emotion. But why emotion? Because an emotional response tends to leave a deeper, visceral impression, making it more likely to be memorable, like this Virgin Atlantic safety video.

Stories

Good storytelling is perhaps most important of all, because our remembering self is a storyteller! Experiences are recalled as stories. Memories are stories! Kony 2012, or Toms Shoes both do a solid job of telling their stories in a way that has proven memorable.

Kahneman also stressed very much the importance of the “story about an experience” and lists the parts that define a story in memory:

  • Changes
  • Significant moments
  • Endings (very important; see also the well-known peak-end rule)

Take the example of a user filling out a form or buying something on Amazon. The deciding factor for the remembering self, who will afterwards decide to return or promote your idea, will not be the time it takes, but what will happened during changes (“Next”), significant moments (“Payment”) and endings (Confirmation, delivery, follow-up, etc.).

It is clear that a thorough grasp of the art of storytelling will help to produce memorable experiences.

Conclusion

A bit like Donald in this 1938 Disney short, we all have 2 selves, and they are profoundly different

We all have two selves. Not necessarily in terms of good versus evil, but research has unmistakably shown that Self #1 experiences, while Self #2 remembers, and that it’s an either/or story. They can never do both. The ramifications for UX design, then, are profound, as UX tailors to the needs of Self #1 while all decisions within the experience—like: “Let’s do that again!”—are made by Self #2.

Memories are of the utmost importance. Creating “great experiences” for the mere sake of the experience seems insufficient and premature. Attempting to instill fond memories will be possible only via UX design, but it will require a different kind of UX design, that is laser-focused on the memories we hope will stick.

Epilogue

Next action step? For a true understanding of our memory, head to the library (or Amazon). Some book tips: Moonwalking with Einstein, Mind Hacks, The Advertising Concept Book, Believe Me, Thinking Fast and Slow, and the aforementioned Made To Stick. I wish I could offer a list of “10 Ways To Design User Memories” but it isn’t that easy. Still, my IA Summit talk also offers some additional examples and background info.

 

Droped ice cream photo courtesy Jon Wilson

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

 

UX / Interaction Design professional for over 5 years at an international digital agency. Speaker on UX strategy (Euro IA, IA Summit...). Background in economics.

 

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Comments

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I am so happy to have found this article. I've been talking of UX design as of reference systems building for ages. And all this "we build great experiences for you" is nonsense. People only strive on good memories. It's great when the authoritative academic research is on your side.

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Why even bring up Amazon as an example? Amazon is a perfect example of how UX can go downhill when conventions are NOT followed. I spent an inordinate amount of time just to find buttons and links. Yes, I remember Amazon, and I remember it as a place that I would NEVER want to deal with again.

But how come I still go there? Because there are specific things that can only be done at Amazon (you could call it a monopolistic situation). And I hated it. So the decision to revisit a website might have absolutely nothing to do with UX, the memory of a good experience, or even general desirability.

So since Amazon is brought up, I suppose UX is just like typography. It disappears when it’s done well, but when it’s done poorly it sticks out like a sore thumb?

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Another vote for Kahneman's recent book. He definitely has a lot to say, indirectly, about the work of a UX practitioner. Apologies for the self-promotion but I recently highlighted some of the take-aways from the first few chapters and writing for 'cognitive ease' over at UX Booth: http://www.uxbooth.com/blog/writing-for-cognitive-ease/

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Very thought provoking article that reminds us about the little things along the experience path. It makes me think of the tiny things that Mint did to get so popular. The same could be said for the success of Apple products. It's the tiny frills during the overall experience that plant in your memory and can create a long lasting sentiment that will spill over into positive recommendations.

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Interesting reflection Koen, but I must disagree somehow. As I see it you may do some deliberate assumptions: that when we talk about "experience" in UX Design we refer exclusively to immediate experience -that psychological present from around three seconds that Kahneman describes-. But when we refer to user Experience in UX Design I believe will be more suitable consider it as "the overall user experience" meaning, a broader concept that include all the temporal levels of a user experiences (momentary, episodic, and long-term). So, when we try to design a "great experience" we should not focus exclusively on immediate experience, but in all of that stages. Memory (all types of memories) is a key factor of user experience (same as for human cognition) so nobody can ignore it.

We must be careful when we pick concepts from other fields, and pay special attention to the working definition they are using for that actually research. Experience here is consider almost as synonymous of perception, as in most of cognitive science research - check Victor Lamme studies about visual experience and consciousness-, but we talks about much more than just perception in UX design, don’t you?.

Made for stick tips -a read it last year- are an easy reading book, that perfectly refresh the classic rhetorical principles in a clearer way (full of examples!), I recommend it too, especially for those who don’t have a strong background in communication fields. Your post is anyway a good excuse to highlight the memory impact on our professional practice and help me remember C. and D. Heath tips Thanks a lot!

By the way Kahneman research is very align with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi “Flow” research, you may just change his Optimal Experience by happiness and everything will seem very consistent with Kahneman described experiment.

Good post! (sorry for my English) :)

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Great article and Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow is a brilliant guide for UX practitioners.

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Why don't we simply stop with the vague/fad name of 'ux design/(insert title here)' when it comes to web, mobile, tablet etc. and go back to its true and original name - INTERACTION DESIGN.
It is so much clearer, less ambiguous, though less fashionable? Or is the real reason people are swinging and throwing the 'UX' tag in front of every type of job title, and without true relevant understanding or Interaction Design, simply because they want to increase the amount of money they can screw out of their clients / employers?

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I've paid for my holiday already I'm not going to abort it half way through. If Amazon mucks me about while I'm trying to give them money then I'm outta there. We seem to be forgetting that we need the user to complete the experience before having any memory of it.

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Yes, we should focus on the user experience. I agree that an individual cannot remember the details of their vacation if everything went well. Heck, I bet a few minor negative experiences on the trip may be overlooked in the end. But what if things go wrong? I know that I have a short list of places to which I will never return. There are airlines on which I will never fly. Restaurants I will never again visit. When those kinds of trips happen, we tell our friends how dreadful they were.

We may not need to make every experience great, but we must be sure to design experiences that are meaningful enough to fit the user's context, and functional enough to provide the expected result. If we delight along the way, we raise the chance of a person-to-person recommendation.

So yes, the experience matters – even if the user can't remember it.

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As Don Norman writes in [1]: "... what is most important? The ending. What is most important after that? The start. So make sure the beginning and the end are wonderful."

[1] "THE WAY I SEE IT: Memory is more important than actuality", Doi: 10.1145/1487632.1487638

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I like your point regarding the inclusion of memory in design, but I think you are throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The two scenarios described are not equal. The first is a one-time event combining tons of different services, locations, products, and experiences. The second is a very focused but repeatable event of ordering a book on Amazon. I order books from Amazon on a weekly basis, I take holidays every few years.

Not addressing the differences between the two examples obfuscates the very necessary role of UX when designing products and services. If I am using something on a daily basis then my experiencing self will be activated more frequently, rewriting or influencing my remembering self (and vice versa). Memory may play a stronger role in the case of the holiday, but there is a more dialectical relationship between the experiencing self and the remembering self in the case of ordering books from Amazon (on a regular basis, at least).

Personally I'd rather see the discussion framed as, "Designing for Experience and Memory" (though that title definitely isn't as provocative; perhaps "The Dialectics of Experience and Memory"). Experience isn't the wrong thing to design for, nor is it the only thing. The same applies to memorability. They are both valid facets of design, and should be used at the appropriate times for the appropriate situations.

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Great post and really good to see some of Kahneman's theories being applied to UX design (I'm also currently reading "thinking fast and slow"). I loved the summary of design guidelines for memorability and it's reassuring (& unsurprising) that a lot of those things are also pretty standard concepts for creating a positive and differentiated user experiences too! In my opinion, designing for memory goes alongside, and is a key component of, user experience design. We shouldn't stop focussing on the experience but continually bear in mind the lasting imprint that experience might have on the user (after all, although a good experience is not necessarily a memorable experience...a bad experience sure as hell might be!). The biggest takeaway for me is that more memorable experiences will fuel more advocacy and customer engagement (e.g. Recommending to friends) as well as increasing customer retention/returning users. Make it stick = added to my reading list :-).

Thanks for the thoughtful post with some actionable guidelines to help make great experiences more effective.

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Great post. Fascinating, I would love to test this theory in a website context.

Great memories are influenced by so many factors and are only usually formed when something has a significant impact on our lives. Therefore I would be surprised if a website could solely be responsible for providing a truly great and lasting memory.

Often most websites only play a small part in achieving a bigger goal. The experience of which (offline and online) will ultimately be remembered. Therefore I would suggest UX designers can only deal with making the immediate experiences as pleasurable as possible.

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Hi Koen,
We should be designing for experience as experience is part of the memory. The ideal outcome should be an WOW experience.
There are two distinctive group of "UX" professionals in the industry. A group came of visual designs, another from multi-disciplinary background such as Human Factors, Psychology, architecture;etc. A lot of times many of our UX designers are just designers due to how UX have evolved from UI. UX need to be from a strategic point of view to delivering great experiences. I am fortunate enough to come from visual design background and did my undergrad studies in Human Factors. The path allow me to see two sides and understand the true value "UX". It is solving problem from a system view with people in the centre. This mean we can design behaviour for an outcome. To design a good experience mean designing a WOW experience. I am currently reading Kahneman's Thinking, fast and slow. Great read. The book covers alot what is being covered in cognitive psychology which is critical for experience design. Another book i will recommend is Delivering happiness by Tony Hsieh. Great book if you are into experience, service design or simply business management.

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Awesome post. I love articles that examine problems from a completely different angle than I'm used to.

I completely agree that how the experience is remembered is more important than the experience design itself. (Although they are intrinsically linked) There's a lot of evidence that users remember the most unexpected points within an experience (be it good or bad).

I do want to mention that in many cases, experiences are designed to be forgotten. If it's easy enough, and conforms to typical conventions, many times the experience will be forgotten, but the conversion will still take place. This extends to content-focused sites where memorability of the experience surrounding the content (finding it, interacting with it, sharing it etc.) is less important than remembering content itself.