Selective Memories: Creating Products With Emotional Resonance

Creating an evocative user experience involves tapping into our most powerful method of recall and recognition.

Life is filled with unpleasant experiences. Not only do we survive them, but in hindsight we tend to minimize the bad and amplify the good. Psychol­o­gists call it “rosy remembrance.” Recently, I gave a lecture on this subject and afterward received an e-mail: “Your discussion … made me remember my trip to Thailand a few years ago. … I traveled for three weeks and lost 10 pounds because I didn’t like any food. There were insects ‘on steroids’ everywhere I turned and the restrooms were no joy. … However, I had the time of my life and I would go back in a second.” The message came attached with photos of awful, insectlike food, a mammoth spider, and an unseemly squat toilet.

Scary meals, scarier bugs—why on earth would anyone go back for more? Clearly, the positive aspects of my correspondent’s trip (her memories) far outweighed the typical Third World inconveniences. This fundamental behavior, which can be powerfully merciful when it comes to ordeals like childbirth and marathons, has important implications for how we interact with designed ob­jects. Why, for instance, are people’s most prized possessions often trifles, even kitsch—a chipped teacup, a torn and faded photograph, a wire Eiffel Tower? Our attachment to those objects is entirely shaped by memory. Because past experiences are no longer recoverable except through recollection, we value objects by the emotions they provide rather than their intrinsic worth. It’s why the memories surrounding them often transcend everything else about them.

For most of the 20th century, product design was largely about the physical appearance of objects that solved well-defined problems. Museum curators treated products as exercises in styling—Art with a capital A. But today, as our technology becomes more complex, as computers are embedded into so many of our gadgets and gizmos, the dominant way we interact with products is through experience. If the last century was about rationality and reason (or attempted to be), let’s hope this one ushers in a deeper appreciation of human behavior. Ideally, logic and reason would remain important, but cognition (how we understand things) and emotion (how we value them) should play equally important roles.

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In my book Emotional Design, I argue that the interplay between cognition and emotion occurs on three levels: the visceral, the behavioral, and the reflective. The lowest level, the visceral, is unconsciously triggered by the environment and driven by involuntary, biologically determined reactions (a fear of heights, say, or a yen for sweets). Vis­ceral design is about appearances. Expert skills operate at the behavioral level. These are so well learned, so automatic (language, for example), that they’re performed with little or no conscious effort. The reflec­tive level is where our conscious­ness resides, where we ponder the past and contemplate the future. Despite the sensual pull of the visceral, and our utter dependence on the behavioral, the reflective level ultimately dominates our perception. Why? Life is a series of temporary, fleeting experiences. The rest is, literally, memory.

So if memory rules perception, where does that leave the 21st-century product designer? The obvious answer—go out and create objects capable of evoking vivid memories—comes loaded with an inherent problem: memories exist in the mind of the user. The object, however well conceived, is merely a tool. It may be beautifully resolved, function perfectly, come in trendy colors, possess an elegant interface, and even make the user feel better about himself, but the object itself is ultimately a go-between: we love our objects (when we love them) for the human experiences they provide. Why are some people emotionally attached to their cell phones even though they tend to replace them every year? The cell phone is a tool for connection, just as the automobile is a means of transportation. Everything else about these objects (and think of all that goes into differentiating one car from another, when the basic function is exactly the same) is defined by the rituals, cues, and memories built into them.

Look at what we do on our cell phones. We fall in and out of love. We flirt with the cute boy two rows behind us (via text message). We watch YouTube videos. We contest credit-card charges (with operators in India!). We haggle with clients. We remind aging parents to take their blood-pressure medication (in loud, head-turning voices). It is the messy, tedious, glorious stuff of life, facilitated by a cool or clunky contraption lodged in our pockets or buried in our purses.

The iPod was a revolutionary object: smart, prescient, beautiful, emotionally engaging. It transformed our listening habits and inspired a raft of copycat devices. But what is an iPod’s ultimate function? It’s certainly not to upend the recording in-dustry as we know it, or to render aging radio DJs obsolete (although it is doing both, ruthlessly). The iPod is a tool for bringing a roomful of music—one of the strongest sensory cues known to man—into the palm of your hand: touch a button and you’re reliving the quaint and awkward horrors of your high school prom.

But creating a product with emotional resonance does not require Jonathan Ive and his band of merry pranksters, or a team of German automotive engineers. It is not about technology or elaborate styling. Our love of objects is not even about the objects themselves. It is always about us. We grow to love the objects that connect us to other people, create meaning, and remind us that we’re alive.

What Is Good Design

Good Is Sustainable
Good Is Accessible
Good Is Functional
Good Is Well Made
Good Is Emotionally Resonant
Good Is Enduring
Good Is Socially Beneficial
Good Is Beautiful
Good Is Ergonomic
Good Is Affordable

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