Designing Experiences For Faulty Memory

Here’s a fairly common experience. You have a conversation with a colleague and you could swear that you remember sharing some important detail or update. When you see that person a week later and ask about the status of that request you mentioned, he has no recall of it. Did you forget to mention it or does your colleague have a bad memory?

You meet a fellow librarian at a conference and get to chatting. You recall a speaker from last year’s conference and share something memorable you heard. Your friend thinks it was actually a different speaker who said that, and she remembers the point of the talk being somewhat different than your recollection. Someone’s having an inaccurate memory of an event, but it is you, the friend or possibly both? If enough time has elapsed since the original event it’s possible that our memory of what happened or what was said can grow a bit fuzzy.

We’re constantly being flooded by new information and experiences, so it’s reasonable to expect stored memories could become jumbled. Because our memory works in strange ways it’s also possible that we remember things in a different way than the way they actually did happen. OUr mischievous brains also have the capacity to create entirely false memories – things that never happened or represent a significant reworking of what really happened. A common human experience indeed, and one that’s a bit frightening when considering the damage that a severely manufactured memory can do.

For experience designers this presents a challenge. If one of the goals of designing experiences is to leave someone with a great memory of your library, the people they encountered and the great service they received, what’s the point if we all have malfunctioning memories that either remember selectively at best or completely incorrectly at worst or even more bizarrely could construct an entirely false memory. How do you design an experience for that scenario? What may help is having a better understanding of how human memory works and whether there is a strategy for improving the odds that an experience will be remembered as accurately as possible – or at least the good parts.

So what do we do about designing memorable library experiences when we know memory is faulty? Some advice comes from Koen AT Claes in a blog post titled “Should We Focus on User Experience?“. Claes acknowledges that the actual experience and the memory of that experience are two different things:

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…Thinking back, we can never judge an experience, only the picture constructed by the bits we remember.

Does that mean it is pointless to create a great experience? Of course not, but it suggests that it is important to pay attention to designing for a memorable experience because in the long run the memory is likely to matter more than the actual experience…and thanks to our faulty memory that could be a problem.

Claes is unable to offer much in the way of specific advice or ideas for designing experiences that will find their way, wholly intact, into long-term memory. She recommends following the advice of Chip and Dan Heath from their book “Made to Stick” and the SUCCES model (Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, Stories) as a strategy to create “sticky” experiences that have a better chance of making it into long-term memory. Unfortunately, as Claes puts it there is no easy way, no list of top things we can do to design experiences for better memories.

If Claes is correct about designing for memory rather than the actual experience, that may be somewhat liberating in that we might be able to worry less about the overall experiences we design for interaction with our library and focus more on creating a good memory. Perhaps that means focusing energy on the end of a transaction in order to have people leave with a good feeling, even if it does get a bit fuzzy over time. It may call for something particularly good or pleasant as people leave the library.

To be on the safe side though, I would continue to advocate for designing for totality. Make the entire library experience as good as it can be from start to finish, from the first touchpoint to the last. It’s possible that much of a good library experience will end up jumbled, disjointed and mis-remembered. If we have done our experience design work well though, enough of the memory of the library experience should come through as a pleasant story with a good ending. All the more reason to avoid, at all costs, having community members leave on a sour note. Given our faulty memories, a bad experience, no matter how small a part of the total experience, is apt to be the dominant memory – and that’s not good for us.

P.S. – If you’d like to learn more about false memories there is a good TED talk by psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, an expert on memory. She explains how we can remember something that did not happen to us or, more frequently, we simply forget the details of what actually happened and we construct an altered memory. Loftus has given expert witness testimony in dozens of criminal cases, and helped to win many of them by demonstrating the reliance on false memories to arrest individuals. If you need further convincing about the failings of human memory, watch this talk.

Author: StevenB

Steven Bell is currently Associate University Librarian for Research and Instructional Services at Temple University, and was previously Director of the Library at Philadelphia University. Steven is the author of two regular columns published by Library Journal, From the Bell Tower and Leading From the Library. With John Shank he is co-founder of the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community. Bell and Shank are also authors of the book Academic Librarianship by Design. Bell's latest book is Crucible Moments: Inspiring Library Leadership. More information is found at his website.

1 thought on “Designing Experiences For Faulty Memory”

  1. Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom features two rival design teams: one that wants to preserve rides with multimedia experiences, and one that wants to download memories into people’s heads.

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