On Why We Should NOT Focus on UX

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Full narrative of talk given at IA Summit 2011, Denver


After having enjoyed the privilege of giving this talk atIA Summit (and Euro IA), I tossed the slides on SlideShare.

Quickly, though, peers who couldn’t make it pointed out that, without the sound, it all didn’t make much sense :-)

Agreed, the slides were only meant as visual support; not to be self-explanatory.

So for those who weren’t there: behold, here, the full narrative(*), written out :-)

(*) With links to examples and more background info.


Leuven (Belgium), ~ 2007

In Leuven, an old, charming university town, close to Brussels, a rumor went round.

Perhaps it still does to this day. But at least it did, when I studied there, until ~ 2007 :-)

The rumor went that: when going out, you’d better not drink both Baileys and Schweppes the same night.


Why not? Because you could DIE!

Because… When combined, these liquids would kickstart a chemical reaction, which would cause the mix to harden.

Supposedly turning into a rock, the size of your fist.

Inside your stomach…

Of course, it is easy so check if this is so.

It is not.


There is a small reaction, though.

Because Baileys is a cream based liqueur, it includes caseine, which reacts when it comes into contact with acids.

And Schweppes includes carbonic acid, causing the mixture to split. But it won’t become hard. Only a bit flaky.

Verdict: classic urban myth.


However, what remains fascinating, is the question why this myth (or any urban myth) spreads so easily so widely.

And specifically: what makes it so memorable?

Because, for it to spread, viva voce, it must be memorable.

That is basically what this talk is about:

MEMORABILITY, and its impact on UX (design).


The short, obligatory self introduction:

I am a UX designer myself — contrary to what the title of this presentation may suggest :-)

And I am particularly interested in how our memory works.


I gave this presentation first at Euro IA 2010, in Paris.


Then, some time later, I was invited to do it over again, in Denver, at the 2011 IA Summit


…to the apparent delight of some great fellow formerEuro IA speakers, like Jeff Gothelf.

Which was nice.


This talk is split into 3 main parts:

Part 1: The (un)importance of UX…

Part 2: How we remember…

Part 3: How to make something memorable…


So, to start: what is UX?

Specifically, what do we mean by the X of “eXperience”?

You could see it as something volatile; something that overcomes you, and fades away quickly.

Like feeling cold, or warm.


Or, you could see it as something you mention on your CV.

A set of skills, learned over time, slowly…

Something persistent; stored in your long-term memory, explicitly or implicitly.

When we, in our field of UX design, speak of “X”, I guess we refer to an event that leaves some kind of impression.

(I will come back to this later.)


First, enter Prof. Daniel Kahneman.

One of the founding fathers of behavioral economics.

And also the first non-economist (he is a psychologist) ever to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics.


During research he did into happiness and mental well-being, he uncovered something remarkable.

To me, something with direct implications on UX design.

He explains it all in a TED talk. (Highly recommended!)


One of his experiments involves 2 patients, each undergoing a painful colonoscopy.

During the procedure, they are asked, in 1-minute intervals, to report the intensity of their pain, on a scale (1 to 10).

Patient B’s ordeal, however, did last longer than Patient A’s.

Thus, Patient B experienced more pain, in total.

Seems obvious.


However, when asked, some time later, how they felt about it, their answers where entirely contradictory.

Patient A reported the experience as having been much worse than Patient B seemed to remember it.

Key, here, was how the event ended (peak-end rule).

For patient A, the end was intensely painful. While for B, the peak was relatively low. Even though, cumulatively, B experienced more pain in total!

So, for our memories, endings seem very important. While time spans seem irrelevant.


In fact, only an extremely small portion of what we experience in our daily lives gets encoded into our memory.

Our psychological present — the world as we now experience it — is extremely short; only a few seconds.

If, within that time span, something does not get encoded into our long-term memory, it is lost forever…


After much research an many experiments, Kahneman’s conclusion was that WE ALL HAVE 2 SELVES:

  • And a REMEMBERING self.

And they are very different.

Our experiencing self lives in the now, but when it comes to decisions, it “has no vote whatsoever.”

In an almost dictatorial way, all our decisions are made by our remembering self.


According to Prof. Kahneman, our 2 selves are different and “are made happy by different things.

In our world of UX then, when a user decides to return to either 1 of 2 websites, will uneventful, unremarkable, convention-based usefulness be the main/only criterium?


Or as Andrew Maier nicely put it: “Just because an application is easy to use doesn’t mean that your users won’t grow tired of it.”

Or another thought-provoking example from Kahneman:

Imagine you’re on a 2-week holiday. The first week you do a lot of crazy, new, exciting things. But the second week you basically do the same thing every day.

In memory, then, it will only seem a 1-week holiday, i.e. all cumulated memories of the 1st week.

Because, the 2nd week, nearly no new memories were added, and we don’t encode time spans just because.


A final point I still wanted to add to the example of the user choosing between 2 similar websites.

Creating the greatest experience in memory is not only important for getting returning visits.

As illustrated in the very first urban myth example, it is also important to make an idea (a website) spread.

You’d want a user not just to return, but also to spread your idea to her friends, family, co-workers, neighbours, etc.

Thus, also generating new visits


Part 2: How we remember…


Understanding how exactly our memory works is hard.

(I’m into it, but still have a lot to learn myself :-)

There are many different ways it gets conceptualized:

  • long-term vs working memory
  • implicit vs explicit memory
  • episodic vs semantic, etc.

The most relevant for UX design seems the distinction between long-term and working memory.


You use LT memory, for example, when you think back about a birthday (making it also explicit and episodic).

Working memory is very different and much more fragile and, as mentioned, only lasts a few seconds.

A lot of its workings are unconscious, like the effects of many memory biases.

The peak-end rule (also mentioned earlier) is such a memory bias. Some other well-known examples: recency effect, priming, etc.


Biases like priming or recency are so subtle because they effect us without us being consciously aware of them.

Some happen so fast (subliminally) we can’t be aware of them even if we wanted to.


Let’s do a few tests. A simple one to start.

Solve this riddle as fast as possible.

(Speed is essential, so blurt out your first thought.)

If you said € 1,- think again…

You cannot say it will cost € 1,- as it could also be € 0,5.

This test aims to illustrate that our brains are satisficing machines, and don’t necessarily pursue the optimal answer.

Something that quickly seems plausible will do.


This second test is about memory itself.

Try to memorize (in 1 go) as many words as possible.

Then write down as many words you can remember.

The catch: chances are high you wrote down “sleep”, even though it never appeared in the original list…

Illustrated here are 2 things:

1) That we can have false memories (confabulations).

2) That our memories are stored in webs of related concepts. That the computer memory metaphor is wrong.


False memories can get pretty extreme.

For example, there was a reported case of a man whose legs became paralyzed because he was run over by a truck.

Only, the accident never happened. It was a false memory, but so vidid he actually became unable to move his legs.

(Nowadays, this is diagnosed as conversion disorder, but faking or exaggeration of symptoms, in general, is actually a pretty big problem in the medical world.)

More worrisome, though, is how easily propaganda can also implant false ideas in our collective memories.


Another memory bias is cryptomnesia, or unconscious plagiarism: you remember an idea as yours, while it’s not.

This frequently happens after brainstorming sessions. It can happen to the best of us.

Even Mark Twain fell victim to it, as he retold in a dinner speech, where his ‘victim’ was guest of honor:

I would have travelled a much greater distance than I have come to witness the paying of honors to Doctor Holmes; for my feeling toward him has always been one of peculiar warmth. When one receives a letter from a great man for the first time in his life, it is a large event to him, as all of you know by your own experience. You never can receive letters enough from famous men afterward to obliterate that one, or dim the memory of the pleasant surprise it was, and the gratification it gave you. Lapse of time cannot make it commonplace or cheap.
Well, the first great man who ever wrote me a letter was our guest — Oliver Wendell Holmes. He was also the first great literary man I ever stole anything from — and that is how I came to write to him and he to me. When my first book was new, a friend of mine said to me, “The dedication is very neat.” Yes, I said, I thought it was. My friend said, “I always admired it, even before I saw it in
However, I thought the thing out, and solved the mystery. Two years before, I had been laid up a couple of weeks in the Sandwich Islands, and had read and re-read Doctor Holmes’s poems till my mental reservoir was filled up with them to the brim. The dedication lay on the top, and handy, so, by-and-by, I unconsciously stole it. Perhaps I unconsciously stole the rest of the volume, too, for many people have told me that my book was pretty poetical, in one way or another. Well, of course, I wrote Doctor Holmes and told him I hadn’t meant to steal, and he wrote back and said in the kindest way that it was all right and no harm done; and added that he believed we all unconsciously worked over ideas gathered in reading and hearing, imagining they were original with ourselves. He stated a truth, and did it in such a pleasant way, and salved over my sore spot so gently and so healingly, that I was rather glad I had committed the crime, far the sake of the letter. I afterward called on him and told him to make perfectly free with any ideas of mine that struck him as being good protoplasm for poetry. He could see by that that there wasn’t anything mean about me; so we got along right from the start.

Essential also in understanding how our memory works is the context. Text and context are always intertwined.

When a new memory gets encoded, some of the context is taken along. (~ “I was in ___ when 9/11 happened”).

And inversely: a context can help a memory to get more easily encoded, or recalled.


Try, for example, to memorize these 2 rows of letters.

Chunking them into smaller groups will already help.

Yet, you’ll notice it to be much easier still with the second row; because there is much more context that can help.

The more context, the easier a memory can get a grip.

Then also: the more one (already) knows, the easier it is to remember new things. So when explaining/communicating something, use language/visual metaphors your audience is familiar with, to increase the odds of it being remembered.


The context simply being different can also play a role in encoding and/or recall.

In terms of encoding: lots of memories can be linked to the place (context) you were at when they got encoded.

But only so many memories can be linked to 1 specific place before that link becomes meaningless (saturation).


So, thinking UX design then: perhaps not every page should be based on the same template (context).

Because if it’s always the same, it can’t help the content to be more memorable.

Therefore, have the context change as well now and then, and be relevant to the content.


A great starting point to learn more about our memory is this book, which includes a chapter on Remembering.


Part 3: How to make something memorable…


Learning how, concretely, to make something memorable is hard also, because obviously you first need to understand how our memory works.

(And I’m still learning new things about that every day :-)

A great starting point, though, is this book, by brothers Chip and Dan Heath.

They investigate what exactly makes some ideas “stick” and others not, and came up with these criteria.

I’ve tried to find some concrete UX design-ish examples for each angle:



Seems an obvious one, but — as any UX designer with some experience knows — is tremendously hard to execute.


Or as Leo Burnett said:

“Make it simple. Make it memorable. Make it inviting to look at. Make it fun to read.


Great example: Umbrella Today



Briefly touched upon earlier, unexpectedness or originality, just for the sake of being unexpected or original, is not silly.

The surprice and extra involement and processing that comes with it will cause it to be more memorable.


As Hideki Nakajima said:

“Content comes first, yet excellent design can catch people’s eyes and impress the contents on their memories.


Great example: Virtual Wallet

For a banking application, this completely breaks the mold.


You can also go for shock value.

Like Suit Supply did.


Or, of course, Benetton.


Or you can also play on the other end of the spectrum: extremely subtle or hidden easter eggs.

Like the arrow in the FedEx logo.


An additional effect you can get by doing this is that the ones who are in the know, will get the feeling they are part of an elite group who have uncovered something special.

Then, they may want to share that secret…


Or the bear in the Toblerone logo.


Or the C in the negative space of Carrefour’s logo.



This is mainly related to the issue of context: making something more easily comprehensible by pointing out similarities with concepts we are already familiar with.

And more.


As Einstein brilliantly put it:

“If I can’t picture it, I can’t understand it.


Other example: Global Rich List


Important also are our different thinking modalities.

For example, by picturing something with icons or visuals, you involve our visual way of thinking as well.


Great example of the inclusion of movement:


Greatest example of all: the RSAnimate lectures play into visual, sound, abstract and movement.


In this sense, the effectiveness of comics as a communication-medium is still greatly undervalued.

Scott McCloud’s classic Understanding Comics explains in a great way the entire theory behind.



Seems an obvious one…


…and nothing new for Web designers actually.

The guys as 37 Signals are particularly good at this.




As Donald Norman said:

“Emotions color the experience and, more importanltly, how the experience will be remembered.

Tip: In a recent talk at dConstruct, Don picks up the subject.


Great example from Virgin Atlantic.

The classic (boring) safety instructions are presented in a new (unexpected) way, using humour and sympathy.


Often ignored also is that we are hardwired to see a human face in things, which greatly influences our emotions.

(I deliberately use emoticons in these annotation ;-)

There’s a great BBC documentary, “The Human Face” on the subject available on YouTube.


But because we are so sensitive to facial expressions, use them in communication to add an emotional touch!

(And forget the “unprofessional” counterargument.)

Credits to Crusty for taking this photo :-)




Great presentation by expert Stephen Anderson on the subject: The Stories We Construct


The stories-angle is probably the most important part, because our memories are stories themselves.

Our remembering self is a storyteller.


So let’s help our remembering self by offering it stories, which are easier to encode.

Behind Toms, for example, there’s a great story.


The peak-end rule has been mentioned before; stressing the importance of endings to memories of experiences.

But in fact, 3 key points are important in any storyline:

  • changes,
  • significant moments,
  • and endings.

So if we screw up the UX on one of these moments, this will create particularly bad memories.


A special example of the creation of great endings are so-called after movies.

A few days after the event is over, Tomorrowland, for example, releases this professionally produced video:

What it does is crystalize the best memories, and as it is the remembering self that will decide to return next year…


EXTRA: Making things forgettable too?

Of course, when one understands how to make something memorable, one can also try to do the opposite…


When you think about it, it really is remarkable how Terms & Conditions types of documents are (still) presented to us.

We are assumed to have read them before clicking “Accept”.

But, if that were truly the case, then there is simply no excuse for the content not being more attractive.

If I were ever asked/forced to camouflage information, I think I’d simply do it like that :-)


The deceptive bits aside, there may also be benign reasons to want to make something forgettable.

Like in most e-commerce areas, where forms are inevitable.

You mostly want to get that hassle over with the smoothest, most unremarkable, unmemorable(*) way possible.

Basically, that’s where pure usability plays a big role.

(*) Note I left out “fastest”, as speed is not always relevant.


Before wrapping up, a quick thought on testing.

Many types of user tests exist; from lo-fi prototype testing to hi-fi eye-tracking, etc.

But can we also test for memorability?


I’m convinced we can.

Mainly because in ‘classic’ market research, different types of memory-related tests have been in use for some time.

But in UX design, memory tests are (still) extremely rare…

Clue, by the way, is a great tool that is precisely made to test what users remember after a first visit.


Whenever doing surveys (~ “How did you like ___?”) or asking for feedback, it is important to keep in mind it is not possible to inquire how someone experienced something.

The answers will always come from the remembering self, never the experiencing self (by definition).

And the answers will always be skewed because of the inevitable focusing illusion.

Simply by the act of stopping to think about something, you exaggerate its real-life importance.


That’s not to say that surveys are entirely useless.

Because, remember: it’s our remembering self (not our experiencing self) that makes all decisions anyway.

Like: “I liked ___, so I will return to that website!

Just be sure to keep in mind who(*) you’re designing for.

(*) The remembering self!


A few days before delivering his keynote at Euro IA, Oliver Reichenstein asked a good question:

I agree with his own response.

And I’d answer similarly to: “Can memories be designed?”

“People’s perceptions of user interfaces are too different to be pre-cogitated by a single person. Yes, I designed this site. But no, I don’t know exactly how you [experience] / [will remember] it (but I do have sort of an idea).


So, to conclude.

I guess what I’m trying to say is:

  • UX is important
  • But UX is not the goal
  • UX is just a tool
  • Our memory is the goal



Interested in learning why & how we remember stuff?

I don’t have all the answers myself, but here are some tips:

watch Daniel Kahneman’s full TED talk.

read brothers Chip & Dan Heath’s Made To Stick.

read Tom Stafford and Matt Webb’s Mind Hacks.


Great :-)


Another reading tip: if you want books to be more memorable, try listening to them instead.

Audio books are great because you can ‘read’ them while on the move, which means that your context keeps changing.

Which means, it’s hard for your context to get saturated.

It is easier for text to attach itself to fresh context.

Made To Stick is actually available as audio book…


A final test.

Close your eyes and listen to this short audio fragment.

(Don’t look at the next slide yet.)

Does it remind you of something? :-)


If it does, was it the 2008 ad launching the Macbook Air?

Sound can be an incredibly powerful memory cue, often retrieving memories you didn’t even consciously encode.

It’s so powerful because sound can be perfectly reproduced.

The sound/song you hear at recall can be 100% identical to the one you heard when the memory was encoded.


Examples of deliberately fabricated connections are easy to find: nearly every ad or movie soundtrack.

Ctrl + Click the links and try to guess the brand/movie ;-)

But connections can of course also be highly personal.

Everyone has songs that trigger lively memories…


Another so-called ambient memory cue is odor.

Like sound, it is also considered transferable: even if the entire recall context changes, that part can feel familiar.

(Less practical in UX design, though; except perhaps for coffee shops or something like that…)


To repeat the conclusion:

  • UX is important
  • But UX is not the goal
  • UX is just a tool
  • Our memory is the goal



To boil down my point even further:

f(experience) = memory

UX design is important, but experience design should stand in function of the memories is creates.


So, to come full circle:

To make something spread, first learn how we remember stuff!


Special thanks to Eric Reiss, for the opportunity!


The End.

Contact at koen.at.claes@gmail.com or +32 474 40 34 50