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Leverage the mechanisms the human mind uses to take in, store, and recall information, events and experiences.

“We don't remember days, we remember moments"

~ Cesare Pavese


Close your eyes, and think about your last vacation.

What do you remember? 

Perhaps, a waiter who was exceptionally nice to you. Or maybe how the hotel staff greeted you with a Hawaian dance when you checked-in. Or maybe it was a stunning view from the top of a mountain after a long hike. Or the day your wallet got stolen. 

Would you go back to that place and hotel? 

To decide, you will have to rely on our memories. We all know we are experiencing things all the time. You are having an experience now by reading this article. Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls this the “Experiencing self’. But Kahneman says we also have a ‘Remembering Self’. 

If we are deciding whether to return to a hotel, run another marathon, or revisit a store, it’s not the actual interaction we had that guides us — it’s the memory of that interaction. In Kahneman's words, ‘there is a big difference between an experience and the memory of an experience’. Although this might sound obvious, there are important implications for how we design experiences. 

But let’s take a step back. How does memory work? 

What people commonly think of as memory is actually composed of three components: sensory, working, and long-term memory. Our sensory memory stores our entire field of vision; everything hitting our retina is preserved if only briefly (a fraction of a second or a few seconds). By contrast, our working memory can only hold about seven digits at a time, or six letters, or four-five words, or a single addition problem. But our long-term memory has an immeasurable capacity; for example most people recognise 90% of their school friends 15 years after graduation and 80% almost 50 years later.

In Make It Obvious we have discussed how salient triggers are required to draw people’s attention. If people don’t pay attention to a piece of information, there is no chance that it will be encoded in our working memory. If the stimulus is encoded into our working memory, the memory is manipulated either to associate it with another familiar concept or with another stimulus within the current situation.

In other words, attention allows information to be taken in, while working memory helps the brain make sense of it. If the information is deemed important enough to store indefinitely, the experience will be encoded into long-term memory. If not, it will be forgotten with other unimportant information.

We also know memories are imperfect, and our brains favor certain types of information when making memories. In addition to that, while details fade over time, our feelings about a particular event do not. In the words of the poet Maya Angelou:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  

Even after an experience, the way we describe it to a friend, or additional information can improve your perceptions and, subsequently, your memory. For example, right after you come back from your vacation your memory is still shifting. Talking about it with other people or posting your trip’s photos on social media can change your feelings, too. 

At this point, you must have noticed how all Make It strategies are connected and can be used in a synergic manner. The same applies to Make It Memorable: What’s attractive, unexpected, easy, and rewarding, is more likely to be encoded, stored in memory and recalled in the future.

Yet, experience and behaviour change designers need to recognise the power of memories and intentionally take distinct actions to earn their favour by enabling us to retrieve information.

Experience and behaviour change designers need to recognize the power of memories and intentionally take distinct actions to earn their favor by enabling us to retrieve information.

With this in mind, let’s go back to your last vacation. Whether you have happy or terrible memories, the overall impression of your last vacation is not like a diary entry of sequential events the way they occurred. 

Peak-End rule

The Peak-End rule tells us people judge an experience largely based on how they felt at its peak moments and at its end, rather than the total sum or average of every moment of the experience. Peaks are events that are emotionally intense. The “ends” refer to the beginning and end moments of an experience, which register more sharply in the memory. This explains why you remember the arrival at the hotel, or a particularly good (or bad) flight back, along with peak moments in between. 

The obvious implication for design is avoiding evoking negative emotions (as they will be remembered more vividly). The less obvious one is that as designers, we should target our efforts to identify what moments in the customer or user journey are worth reinforcing with positive emotions. And keep in mind that last impressions are lasting impressions.

UX specialists at NNGroup mention the example of TurboTax, a software for preparation of income tax returns. The arguably complex flow of filing income taxes ends with a screen that celebrates the end of the process, acknowledging and enhancing most users’ sense of relief.

End, TurboTax

Resurface Past Actions

In addition to helping people create memories, designers can make the process of retrieving information easier. Psychologists distinguish between two types of memory retrieval: recognition (e.g. recognising a person on the street is familiar) and recall (retrieving related details of that person from memory - such as her name). Recall is particularly important in the context of experiences with repeated visits. Displaying the history and providing access to previously visited content and searches can help users resume tasks that they left incomplete and that may have a hard time recalling. For example Amazon displays a card with the most recent item viewed. 

Recently Viewed, Amazon

Nostalgia effect

Taking it a step further, can designers help us reconnect with the past in a more meaningful way? We all know that bittersweet emotion we experience when we recall a past experience that was better than the life we’re currently leading. 

Over the past decade, a small literature on the psychology of nostalgia has developed. Experiments indicate that nostalgia is experienced as an overwhelmingly positive emotion. Nostalgia boosts our mood, increases our sense of self-esteem, optimism and meaning in life as well as encouraging prosocial (altruistic) behaviours. 

The most prominent example in the digital world is Facebook memories, a feature introduced to help people re-experience their posts without having to manually sift through their Timeline. User experience researcher part of the "Memory Team" at Facebook Artie Konrad notes how “while older memories contain an element of surprise and nostalgia, people expressed interest in revisiting more recent memories to help them enhance and prolong their enjoyment”.

Facebook Memories

Memory is a wonder designers rarely think about. In a way, it should be the end goal of creating experiences. A good starting point is deciding what type of memory you need to leverage, as different strategies enhance the different types of memory. Do you want your audience to remember their overall evaluation of the experience? Or specific moments that they could share with others?

Massimo's Note:  Preeti Kotamarthi, Behavioural Behavioural Science Lead at Grab, contributed to this article.


Peak-end rule

Intentionally design Intense positive moments (the “peaks”) and the final moments of an experience (the “end”) to leave long-lasting memories.

TurboTax, a software for preparation of income tax returns. The arguably complex flow of filing income taxes ends with a screen that celebrates the end of the process, acknowledging and enhancing most users’ sense of relief.


Resurface Past actions

Provide access and/or hint to previously visited content and searches to help users remember information they may have a hard time recalling.

Amazon's homepage displays a card with the most recent item viewed to help users recall items they were interested in.


Nostalgia effect

Intentionally reconnect the present with the past by evoking feelings of nostalgia to encourage pro-social behaviours, increase spending, or prolong enjoyment.

Facebook introduced the Memories feature to help users re-experience their posts and extend the pleasure of positive experiences.


Further Readings

Nostalgia Promoting Pro-Social Behavior and Its Psychological Mechanism

Open Journal of Social Sciences | Ya Li

Facebook memories: the research behind the products that connect you with your past

Facebook Research | Artie Konrad

The Peak–End Rule: How Impressions Become Memories

Nielsen Norman Group | Lexie Kane

Memory Recognition and Recall in User Interfaces

Nielsen Norman Group | Raluca Budiu


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