Four ways memory can influence and improve design

Article 2 of 4: Behavioural Design Series

Use the psychology of memory to create experiences that will be remembered for all the right reasons.

By Alessia Romano

As mentioned in the previous article in the series, to design better solutions we need to understand the mind in order to change behaviour. Memory is involved in this and every process. When you ask users to recall a previous experience, make a decision, choose between alternatives or solve a task, memory plays a role. It’s just that most of the time we’re unaware of it.

By understanding how memory works, you create experiences that stick in your customers’ minds and encourage them to come back time and time again.

How to build experiences that will be remembered

Create fantastic memories
Most memory processes are unconscious – but they form a lasting impression, even if we’re not aware of it at the time. So creating the right experiential environment for users is crucial.

When someone enjoys interacting with your brand or business, it encourages positive thinking – and research shows it’s easier for people to recall positive experiences. This in turn encourages certain behaviours, like repeat buying or friend recommendations.

Certain stimulus can also unconsciously activate concepts, images, experiences and feelings. By doing the right customer research you can find out exactly what makes your customers tick and use this to enhance your design.

Don’t picture memories as photographs
We may think of episodic memories as vivid photographs in our mind. However that’s not the way they work. Within minutes, we forget most of the surrounding “unnecessary” details of a worthy-to-remember episode and only the core memory survives.

Remembering is a reconstructive process. When we recollect an episode, the gaps are filled with credible but far from accurate details. However, we tend to overestimate the accuracy because of the vividness usually associated with recalling. Not only the memories themselves, but also the way we perceive them, changes with time. Quoting the Hindsight Bias definition: when we look at a situation retrospectively, we believe we easily can see all the signs and events leading up to a particular outcome. This means that asking directly about personal experiences will often result in inaccurate memories and misjudgements.

Creating good memories, especially first-time memories, will influence your customers’ behaviour in the long run. But don’t focus only on the moment. Consider the before and after as part of the whole experience. For example, AirBnB isn’t just a booking system for spare bedrooms; it has now expanded into providing experiences around trips.

Design for memory fallacies
Not only are our memories flawed, they are also affected by systematic biases and errors. Because we manage to keep only the essential parts, we tend to confuse things we personally experienced with things we heard or read. We mix similar memories or remember things as consequential that, in a broad context, are inconsequential. Also, we tend to have better recall of the initial and final bits of information and forget what’s in the middle. Think about the plot of a film or book, for example.

These errors usually don’t have a catastrophic effect on everyday life, after all they’re brain-tricks to keep memory storage available and fast working. However, they can have a great influence in situations where details are important.

In design, this means avoiding asking people to remember. Instead, remind them what to do, how to do it, and why. Use situational clues and familiarity to lighten the cognitive load. A good example is a video game where users can play the game in training mode first, and then get reminders during actual game play.

Reduce the use of working memory
Working memory is a part of short-term storage and is the process that assists us in everyday problem solving. It’s an accurate and conscious process, but incredibly time and space constrained as well as extremely consuming. It’s the memory we use, for example, when we need to dial a number without reading it. We mentally rehearse the number until the task is solved and as soon as it is, we forget it. This kind of operation is conscious, tiring, and delicate. Not only is the storage limited to 7 ± 2 items at a time, but every distraction can interfere and disrupt the task.

The best designs limit the use of working memory. This means prioritising tasks into short step processes, with visual guidance and progress bars.

More examples of different types of memory:

Prospective memory
This refers to what you intend to do. For example, you know you need to take the rubbish out, so leave it by the door – and then forget it. This is your Prospective memory playing up.

Episodic memory
This refers to the memory of autobiographical events. Episodic memory is the one responsible for totally or partially forgetting certain experiences. This is usually because the episode was not important enough for us to be stored or we were not paying enough attention. An example might be a funny anecdote your friends still laugh about but you can’t remember, even though everyone is positive you were there.

Semantic memory
This refers to your ability or inability to remember a historical date, the name of a politician or the capital of a country. We’ve all had times when we can’t remember the name of a certain actor, you know, what’s his name? He was in that film about an alien.

Procedural memory
If you’ve ever blamed your memory for being unable to drive a car or play guitar properly, you’re on to something – as that’s a form of memory too. Procedural memory is the things you’ve learnt that you don’t forget, like riding a bike.

We hope you’ve found this article useful and would love to find out how you’ve applied it to your User Experience. Let us know at

Watch out for the rest of the articles in this series:

Part 1 – How to use Cognitive Psychology to improve you UX
Part 3 – Three ways to influence customer decision-making
Part 4 – Get emotional about your design

Find out more:

Cognitive Psychology, Sternberg & Sternberg
Cracking our elusive System 1

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