The user experience and Kahneman’s remembering self

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What is more important? An experience, or the memory of an experience? It sounds like a nonsensical question, but the answer has far-reaching and incredible implications in a range of fields.

Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning Behavioural Psychologist, defines two ‘selves’. The experiencing self, and the remembering self.

The experiencing self has no memory. It lives in the moment. The joy felt by a child running barefoot on the sand towards the ocean on a summers day? The experiencing self.

The remembering self however, draws upon and reconstructs memories of events that the experiencing self lived through, and takes the entire experience into account. When the same child recalls that experience, they are likely to remember the joy that they felt during that carefree run.

The importance of memory over experience

Any given experience can leave a positive or negative impression on the remembering self. However, the weighting of different emotions is wildly inconsistent from one moment to the next. For example, a man rides a bus on his way to work for an hour. For 45 minutes he experiences pleasant emotions whilst reading his book. But, the during the last 15 minutes, a baby in the seat behind him begins to cry very loudly, irritating the man. When he recalls the ride later, he only remembers the irritation he experienced, and nothing of the pleasant feelings from his book.

The remembering self has modified the emotions felt by the experiencing self in memory, cancelling out some and emphasising others.

Improving the user experience

In user experience design, much thought is given to the process, flow and goals of the user. Whilst important, this approach sometimes fails to take into account the memory the user is left with after the experience. Any experience can be improved, simply by modifying the memory it leaves.

No, it doesn’t require Jedi mind tricks or hypnosis. It requires an understanding of a basic human truth; people love a good story.

Give them a story to tell

A good story can have some good or some bad elements. It can be all positive, or all negative. The only requirement for a good story is that it be interesting in the remembering. There are countless opportunities to modify the story the remembering self tells.

For example, a common problem many people experience is late trains. ‘My train was late again’ is an all too frequent story told by the remembering self, with the expected negative emotions attached. However, this story can be modified in memory.

The train conductor is in a position to modify this story by simply making light-hearted, cheesy jokes at each stop or station acknowledging the lateness of the service. People love a good story, and the negative story ‘my train was late again’ is replaced in memory and in the retelling by the positive story ‘the conductor was making the best (or worst) dad jokes at each station today’.

This very thing happened to me once, and I left the train with a positive, almost whimsical memory of my experience, rather than the expected negative one.

Always consider the remembering self in the crafting of user experiences.