A while ago I read an interesting article in Smashing Magazine on the concept of user memory design’ and how that applies to almost any online or offline experience with a brand. In this short post, I will condense what I learned into a quickly digestible summary.

What is user memory?

In a 1996 psychology study performed in Canada, patients were asked to rate their experiences during a painful medical procedure with pain and time as the two parameters. It was found that patients who experienced the same level of maximum pain during the procedure would remember it to be vastly different afterwards depending on a very clear pattern; the peak-end’ rule.

‘What we experience in the moment is not what we remember later’

To put this in its most simple terms: The pain the patients remembered was the average between the worst pain point (the peak) and the pain that was felt right at the end of the procedure. Time had nothing to do with it. Even a procedure that had the same peak point and dragged on for much longer was perceived as less painful afterwards as long as the end of the procedure was less painful. Memory just relies on a few key moments and mostly ignores the rest of our experience.

‘Experience is a stream whereas memory is a collection of snapshots.’

How can we apply this knowledge to improve customer satisfaction?

At the moment, we will think of the user experience, but over time what sticks are the memories. It is also those memories that determine whether we love or hate a brand, product or service. So how can we, with the knowledge above, improve customer satisfaction? In comes the theory of user memory design, primarily pointing to this:

How can I design an experience that translates into positive memories for my customers?

Some examples

In the article I read there were a few cases related to these four main areas that I too agree are important based on the concept:

  • Don’t screw up the ending
  • Slow down (when appropriate)
  • Create peak moments
  • Be a story designer

Don’t screw up the ending

The first one is obvious; if a lot of the user memory is determined by the feeling at the end, then make sure not to screw up the ending. Instead, make it the best thing ever, and it will compensate for a few not so good moments in between. An example would be an e-commerce store with a fantastic checkout that would compensate for e.g. products that are not so easy to find.

Slow down (when appropriate)

As mentioned above, we tend to (in retrospect) ignore the length of the experience. That means that you could make some processes slower, and by doing so increase the quality of the process or the perceived value of it (more effort = more perceived value), leading  to increased customer satisfaction.

Create peak moments

This one is easy. Peak moments carry emotional weight and are thus remembered. They are also important as ‘insulation’ to parts of a process that could be less great (keep in mind, we recall the peak and the end, so any experience without a clear peak is vulnerable to unexpected problems).

Try thus to create positive surprises, often connected to the concept of ‘effortless simplicity for me’ which we all carry as an underlying expectation on any experience. Remember the first time you used Uber for example? Tapping a screen and getting a cab in minutes, then paying no tip and in the end don’t struggle with cash payments were most likely such highs.

Be a story designer

This one goes back to how Hollywood uses the concept of user memory design. Make sure you have a peak moment and then end on a peak, that’s the simple recipe for a successful story on which any ‘feel good’ blockbuster is built. 

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Stellan Björnesjö

Online Strategist since 2012
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