User Experience vs User Memory

This piece was originally posted in Fast Co. Design, March 8th 2012

They may play tricks on us and may not be always reliable, but our memories dictate which experiences we choose to repeat and which we don’t. Why not then design for memory instead of experience?  

If you had to relive a painful experience for either 60 or 90 seconds, you’d choose the shorter period, right? It seems so obvious that we usually don’t even bother to ask the question. But, remarkably enough, experiments have shown that you’d be overwhelmingly more likely to pick the longer period if, the first time around, you sensed even a slight lessening of the pain in the final moments of the experience. It seems that we tend to remember, and judge, an overall experience based on the intensity of our sensation at its end relative to the peak intensity during it. And, we tend to ignore the duration of the experience. So we’ll rate a mediocre vacation more highly overall if our final experience of it is highly positive. And vice versa. We’ll tend to discount a great holiday almost entirely if it is some way tarnished towards the end.

For those of us who work in service design and innovation for a living, this has profound implications. After all, it is one of our orthodoxies, part of the designer credo, that user experience is paramount. But what if it isn’t? What if user memory is at least as important--if not more so? What if memorable experiences are determined not by the value of the experiences themselves but by the value of the memories they provoke?

Does this mean that we need to rethink our work?

In some cases, I think it might. Take the design of the average retail experience. Typically the least compelling part of that experience for customers is the financial transaction, the point where they actually have to pay for their purchases. In most cases, regardless of whether those purchases are products, like clothes and groceries, or services, like meals and haircuts, the exchange of money tends to happen at the very end of the experience as a whole. So if we are truly most impacted by what happens to us last, it would seem that many of these experiences provide customers with the worst possible memory of them.

Grant Achatz, one of the world’s most creative chefs, is tackling this problem head on at his latest restaurant, Next. Like a theater that puts on a new show every few months, Next presents themed menus that change completely four times a year. The restaurant’s opening theme was “Paris 1906” in which diners relived Escoffier’s legendary cuisine at the Ritz hotel. This was followed by a “Tour of Thailand,” after which came “Childhood”, a trip down memory lane replete with PB&J sandwiches, macaroni and cheese and superhero lunchboxes. Diners book tickets online in advance, as they become available. The tickets cover the cost of the meal – which, like a show, is presented as a whole, not a la carte – including taxes, tip and, optionally, wine pairings. Once the ticket has been bought, there is no bill to be settled at the end of the dinner. This method of payment not only improves Next’s planning and budgeting abilities but also extends the pleasurable aspects of the experience for the diners all the way through to them leaving the restaurant and thus, according to this theory, likely heightens their memories of it. Reading the reviews on Yelp, it becomes clear how willing customers are to embrace these innovations (nearly every single reviewer appears to be a repeat diner at Next) and how evocative their memories of them become.

Meanwhile in retail, Apple has not only replaced the checkout and cashier paradigm in most stores with “on the floor” payment offered by any available staffer, it now provides an option to bypass the human transaction entirely. Its November 2011 release of version 2.0 of the Apple Store app enables shoppers in any of its US retail locations to use EasyPay on their iPhone 4 to pay for Apple accessories electronically. This means that Apple owners can choose whether or not to engage with a store associate at all. Apple’s efforts to improve the final part of the retail experience, by giving their customers payment options that include using their own beloved iPhone, serve to reinforce positive memories and, perhaps, influence future purchasing decisions.

Of course, not every coffee, meal, grocery run or shopping trip needs to be made into an experience. Sometimes, maybe most times, people just need their caffeine fix or a sandwich-to-go or snacks for the kids or some office supplies. But even then a transaction can feel easy and pleasant, in which case they’ll likely return, or difficult and unsatisfactory, in which case they most likely won’t. In higher stakes experiences, whether they have a reputation for being painful, like a visit to the dentist, or pleasurable, like a vacation, we should consider designing them to maximize these rules to transform people’s memories and influence whether they are game to repeat the experience or prefer to find an alternative. Where once this may have been the domain of a User Experience (UX) specialist, now maybe there’s a role for an expert in User Memory (UM) as well.