If you had to relive a painful event for either 60 or 90 seconds, you’d choose the shorter period, right? It seems so obvious that we usually don’t even bother to ask the question. But, remarkably enough, experiments have shown that you’d be overwhelmingly more likely to pick the longer episode if, the first time around, you sensed even a slight lessening of the pain in the final moments of the experience. It seems that we tend to remember, and judge, an overall experience based on the intensity of our sensation at its end relative to its peak intensity. And we tend to ignore the duration of the experience. So, for instance, we’ll rate a mediocre vacation more highly overall if our final experience of it is overwhelmingly positive. And vice versa: We tend to discount a great holiday almost entirely if it is in some way tarnished toward its conclusion.
For those of us who work in service design and innovation for a living, this has profound implications. After all, it is one of our orthodoxies, part of the designer credo, that user experience is paramount. But what if it isn’t? What if user memory is at least as important–if not more so? What if memorable experiences are determined not by the value of the experiences themselves but by the value of the memories they provoke? Does this mean that we need to rethink our work? In some cases, I think it might.
Take the design of the average retail experience. Typically, the least compelling part for customers is the financial transaction, the point at which they actually have to pay for their purchases. In most cases, regardless of whether those purchases are products, such as clothes and groceries, or services, like meals and haircuts, the exchange of money tends to happen at the very end of the experience as a whole. So if we are truly most impacted by what happens to us last, it would seem that many of these experiences provide customers with the worst possible memory of them.
One of the world’s most creative chefs, Grant Achatz, is tackling this problem head-on with his latest restaurant, Next. Like a theater that puts on a new show every few months, Next presents themed menus that get completely overhauled four times a year. For the restaurant’s opening theme, “Paris 1906,” diners relived the legendary cuisine of French master Auguste Escoffier at the Ritz hotel. That was followed by a “Tour of Thailand,” after which came “Childhood,” a trip down memory lane replete with PB&J sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, and superhero lunch boxes. Diners book tickets online in advance as they become available. The tickets cover the cost of the meal (which, like a show, is presented as a whole, not a la carte), taxes, tip, and (optionally) wine pairings. Once the ticket has been bought, there is no bill to be settled at the end of the dinner.
This method of payment not only improves Next’s planning and budgeting abilities but also extends the pleasurable aspects of the experience for the diners all the way through to them leaving the restaurant and very likely heightens their memories of it. Reading the reviews on Yelp, it becomes clear how willing customers are to embrace these innovations (nearly every single reviewer appears to be a repeat diner at Next) and how evocative their recollections of them become.
Meanwhile in retail, Apple has not only replaced the checkout and cashier paradigm in most stores with “on the floor” payment offered by any available staffer, it now provides an option to bypass the human transaction entirely. Its November 2011 release of version 2.0 of the Apple Store app enables shoppers in any of its U.S. retail locations to use EasyPay on their iPhone 4 to purchase Apple accessories electronically. This means that Apple owners can choose whether they even want to engage with a store associate at all. Apple’s efforts to improve the final part of the retail experience, by giving their customers payment options that include using their own beloved iPhone, serve to reinforce positive memories and, perhaps, influence future purchasing decisions.
Of course, not every coffee, meal, grocery run, or shopping trip needs to be made into an experience. Sometimes, maybe most times, people just need their caffeine fix or a to-go sandwich, snacks for the kids, or some office supplies. But in every case, the transaction can feel easy and pleasant, in which case they’ll likely return, or difficult and unsatisfactory, in which case they most likely won’t. In higher-stakes experiences–whether they have a reputation for being painful (dentist’s visit) or pleasurable (vacation)–we should consider designing them to maximize these rules to transform people’s memories and influence whether they are game to repeat the experience or prefer to find an alternative. Where once this may have been the domain of a user experience (UX) specialist, now maybe there’s a role for an expert in user memory (UM) as well.