Experience is Fleeting
Imagine a vacation of your choice. You can go anywhere you want to, and do whatever you please. Now imagine that at the end of the vacation, all of your memories were erased, along with all the physical proof of your visit. You would have no recollection of your experience, completely unable to share the stories. Complete amnesia. Alas, the question: Would you choose the same vacation?
This brief thought experiment illuminates the perplexing difference between the experiencing self and the remembering self, and studies show we often make decisions that cater to the latter. Moreover, humans constantly do things simply to tell the tale— not to enjoy the moment. Skydiving, working out, and choosing an alternate dish on the menu are all crystal clear examples of this phenomenon. All of the value happens before and after the experience, not during it.
It is for these reasons that entrepreneurs and creators should look beyond user experience or UX, because we truly rarely experience anything — we imagine experiences and remember them. Humans then use these imaginations and memories to make decisions and share information. What is critical to understand here, is that people don’t remember ‘easy’ or ‘neutral’ experiences. We remember ones that have emotional variance — ones that cause considerable pleasure or pain and/or a large degree of separation between the two. Studies also show that the duration of an experience has very little impact on its memory. This knowledge is a complete game changer in business.
Moreover, the study of sensory memory tells us that smooth experiences often go un-stored and thus unshared, which is just poor marketing. Nobody would hear about your product or service. This article aims to outline some of the perplexing anomalies of human experience, how UX is misunderstood, and how you can harness the anticipatory tendencies of humans to build better, more sellable products and services.
I will also argue that all value is essentially imaginary.
Why do we place so much emphasis on being happy about our life, instead of in our life? — Daniel Kanheman
Humans are constantly living out of the moment, thinking about past events and possible future scenarios. This inherent, uncontrollable process of reflection and evaluation is an evolved trait that aided our survival as a species. Our memories guided our decision making through a more rugged, basic ecosystem. Remembering a bad encounter with a particular type of food is a good example of how memories can help us avoid potential threats. If you didn’t remember, you would be putting yourself in life threatening danger every time you reach a stoplight.
Although an effective learning mechanism — the process of reflection can and often does breed anxiety and depression. We reflect on things that do not have an impact on our future, and we imagine dreadful scenarios that are just downright unlikely. Our primitive brains aren’t able to logically understand the multitude of factors that comprise a particular problem, but we continue to regret the past and predict the future — leading to non-functional thought patterns.
Every human knows what it’s like to regret and worry. If it’s not about health, it’s about past relationships, a job interview, or maybe an upcoming business meeting. Humans are built to worry, it is us. Meditation and ‘mindfulness’ attempts to combat this fundamental human tendency.
Keep in mind that although our imaginations are the cause of our suffering, this hindsight and foresight also motivates us to do incredible things. If we didn’t have foresight, we wouldn’t understand the concept of saving, or planning. We would still be hunter gatherers, searching for food and sustenance only when we require it. Without our foresight humans would have never evolved into an agricultural society. We literally are, because of our imaginations and memories.
The fact that imaginations and memories are a fundamental part of the human experience begs us to challenge the traditional approach to product and service design. Entrepreneurs and designers constantly think, ‘how do I make this experience better’, when we should also be asking ‘how can I make the memory of this experience better? Only a fraction of mind work happens when someone is actually using a product. In fact, when we’re using things we’re not thinking about how good or bad they are, we’re just in the moment.
Although a paramount objective for entrepreneurs and creators is and should be to build optimal products that induce flow — motivation still needs to be built prior to physical use, before the ‘experience’. Also, the memory of an experience is mandatory for powerful word of mouth recommendations.
Moreover, thinking about design as a primarily psychodynamic interplay between information and the user allows my clients and I to create highly engaging content that tickles the imagination, and memorable experiences (both real and fake) that ultimately lead to more recommendations and sales. It gives us a different model to think about UX and business in general. Not only should a product or service be ‘intuitive’, but the content and structure of your information and value should aim to a) create grandiose imaginary experiences through psycho-semiotic techniques, b) exceed those anticipations, and c) enhance those memories using various mnemonic strategies (aka peak-end rule, power of free, priming).
Every Thing Is Imagined
Advertising has shown us over the years that humans are suckers for association, and we can be primed quite easily to imagine positive or negative futures that influence our behaviour. For example, we routinely use attractive models to advertise products. Us — the viewer, associates the attractive person with the product, which ignites our impressionable, fantasy addicted mind. We consciously/unconsciously start creating causal links between ourself, the characters, objects, and products in the story. I call this process anticipatory loading. In order to sell a service, one must start creating pleasurable associations with the product and some desired state of reference. The more fungible a product is, the more anticipatory loading it requires.
Another clear example of imagined value is the gym as a product. The mere thought of getting the membership and getting in shape is valuable, and this happens internally. Nothing has to been done. We think about being in great shape, and to some of us — that is enough. It is why you exclusively see fitness centres adhering to a strict monthly payment schedule. They know you will use the gym a couple times the first month and rarely use it again, while they continue to collect your monthly dollars. We shamefully don’t want to revoke our membership until financially necessary. It also satisfies the mind knowing that you have these recurring products or services to ‘fall-back’ on. More and more we’re seeing subscription based models take over, which all tickle the imaginative human mind. Again, imaginations are different than user experience, or UX.
To reiterate, in life and business, no physical transaction must happen for value to be created, everything is mental. I can’t stress this enough. Insurance is the epitome of this concept, and is obviously a bulletproof business model. The promise and or illusion of safety and security is a powerful product. Low and behold if you opted out of all of these subscription services and insurances, you would undoubtedly save money over the course of your life. I’m not saying you would be happier.
Humans also fantasize about remembering, which is extremely puzzling. Our initial vacation thought experiment illuminates this, as does our skydiving example. No intelligent organism feels completely at peace before jumping out of a plane. It’s not fun…in that moment. The real fun starts when that shoot opens, you land safely, tell the experience, and probably never do it again.
What the imagining human tells us, is that value is created internally through a process of anticipating and remembering. It makes sense when you think about it. We mentally buy things before we buy them — we imagine using them and mentally bargain way before and beyond stepping into any store or clicking ‘checkout’. These imaginations can be rich, grandiose, and better than the real thing.
What do we Remember?
Creating lasting memories is truly the essence of a successful product and service, because good memories are responsible for recommendations. A recommendation is a formidable rhetorical tool — a massive trust builder. A recommendation doesn’t carry an ulterior motive, so trust is immediately established. This is also why a solid product or service is at the foundation of every great business. When you have a great product, it markets itself.
Scientists have been fascinated with what and why we remember certain things. Evidence shows that the remembering self loves stories. Stories are defined by the characters, events, pain, pleasure, peaks, valleys, beginning and especially the endings. Big events define a story. Twist and novelty. I’ll explain shortly why this matters and how we know this.
Evoking emotional responses creates lasting impressions. We tend to remember things that caused us either considerable harm or extreme joy — it’s a survival mechanism. It is why video advertisements are so effective. They can use the combination of music, story telling, and symbology to evoke strong emotions and long lasting associations. If you want to be remembered, be different and use powerful imagery and messaging to evoke emotional responses in your users.
Studies show that humans also remember more at the beginning and end of an experience. Psychologists know this effect as peak-end rule or the primacy and recency effect. Here is an explanation of peak-end rule from wikipedia:
The peak–end rule is a psychological heuristic in which people judge an experience largely based on how they felt at its peak (i.e., its most intense point) and at its end, rather than based on the total sum or average of every moment of the experience. The effect occurs regardless of whether the experience is pleasant or unpleasant. According to the heuristic, other information aside from that of the peak and end of the experience is not lost, but it is not used. This includes net pleasantness or unpleasantness and how long the experience lasted. The peak–end rule is thereby a specific form of the more general extension neglect and duration neglect.
The peak-end rule teaches entrepreneurs and designers that we should be ‘wowing’ users at the beginning and end of an experience, and/or enhancing the most pleasurable aspects of an experience to induce strong positive memories. There are a multitude of ways to do this depending on your business. Notice how seemingly every dentist gives you a free toothbrush, and has media entertainment in the waiting room? It’s all about mitigating the awful middle parts of that experience. The video game and free toothbrush strategy is so effective it spread like wildfire in the dentist community. Now every dentist office has video games and free toothbrushes.
To summarize, duration neglect proves that time matters less than quality. Are you charging by the hour? Think again. Service professionals may want to think about billing per session, and offer better value in that limited timeframe. The science shows that as good 30 minute massage will be remembered more than a mediocre 60 minute one.
True experience is fleeting, and attempting to measure it is futile. This leads the UX industry to undertake in practices that are unrigorous and unvaluable to innovation and growth. This is especially true when formulating and testing ideas, which is really what design is all about. Companies constantly show some hypothetical user some screens then ask them to ‘think out loud’. This is absolutely absurd. It is completely unnatural to vocalize sensation. In fact, once you ask a potential user to share their ‘feelings’ about a particular design, you take them out of the ‘moment’ — they start using a completely different part of the brain.
A large part of the human experience involves imagining and remembering scenarios, all of which do not take place now. Studies also show that humans place a tremendous amount of importance on memories as opposed to experiences. It is for these reasons we should look before and beyond UX, because when we experience something, we aren’t cognizant of its value. Everything and nothing happens now. Our unique human cognition is largely defined by our imaginations and memories — they are us.
Moving forward, while true user experience is difficult to measure and test, what designers/creators do have control over is the information or stimuli that a particular user sees, which invokes imaginations (may or may not comprise an experience), that subsequently turns into memories.
With this evidence in mind, to design and market products, people must imagine and remember value, which is completely different from experiencing value. We must also understand that humans remember in stories with characters, novelty, twist, beginnings, and endings — because these served as evolutionary advantages in pre-industrialized society. Also know that value is created and lives internally, in the mind. When you buy a pair of jeans or eat a piece of fruit, all signals and processes happen in the nervous system. This should also give you perspective on your own life purchases. How much of your stuff is bringing you real functional value? How much of that is perceived? Is anything really real?
I’m Jeff Davidson
I help companies design profitable digital products.