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Why Memory Sequences Matter for Product Design

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Remember when I talked about how to blend AI research with UX design in a pragmatic way? Today, I’m delving deeper into one of the core components of hierarchical thinking mentioned in that post: Memories.

In this blog, I’ll walk through some memory recall fundamentals, explain the subconscious events we all experience with memories, and show you a different perspective on how memories drive people to use products.


First, What is Memory?

If you’ve never thought deeply about what memories are, then this may have escaped you: Knowledge is essentially memories connected together to form a complex series of thought patterns. The more you focus on and study a specific subject, the more complex those connections and patterns will be—i.e., the more “knowledgeable” you’ll be about that particular subject.

Moreover, memories are stored in a sequence. This is why people develop routines; it’s why we can recite the alphabet in its exact order from beginning to end, but not easily in reverse (unless you’ve practiced). It’s also why people anticipate specific purchasing steps when shopping online: Add to Cart > Go to Cart > Estimate Shipping > Check Out > Pay.

Consider this example: Remember Arthur Chu, the Jeopardy TV show contestant whose mind games yielded him about $100,000 in winnings? He won, in part, because he broke the “routine” of how contestants typically answer questions. Most contestants pick a category and go down the line until there are no more answers left; instead, he erratically jumped from category-to-category to throw his opponents off each time it was his turn to choose.

Why do contestants usually stick to a category until it’s finished? It’s not just because they have good memory of that category—it’s because when memories are isolated to a specific subject, it’s easier to sequentially transition to other related memories. So, if you jump from one category to another like Chu, you force everyone to re-acclimate their thinking, causing them distress and loss of focus.

So, How Does Chu’s Process Apply to Product Design?

This reaction also explains why people can become frustrated with unexpected product changes. Let’s say you have a product that customers are already used to: You’ve already put them on a path to engage in a specific series of steps in order to accomplish a task. They’ve stored that memory string in their head and recalled it over and over, further ingraining it to memory. By changing one small step in that sequence, it gives them pause which typically translates to fear and/or anger. They may ask, “Why did it change? What’s wrong with the company?”

Sometimes, change is for the better and your customers will move past those obstacles to learn the product the way you intended. On the other hand, if changes aren’t for the better, customers may abandon your product altogether. However, you can avoid this by testing various “potential” solutions—think A/B testing or deliberate testing for internal applications—and measuring the outcomes to ensure you’re on the right path.


Using Memory Symbols as Reminders

Have you ever interrupted someone while they were talking, causing them to lose track of what they were saying? When this happens, the person will usually ask you to repeat a part of what they were saying so they can get back on track. Why? Because they had an anticipated sequence of memories they wanted to communicate. By asking you to repeat, they’re asking you to give them a “memory symbol” to pick back up on that sequence.

Another example is when we lose what page we were on when reading a book. Stories read in a sequence, right? When we’re thumbing through a book to find a page we lost, we’re really searching for that memory symbol. If we go too far back, we can pick out events in the book that indicate it was too far back in the sequence; if we thumb too far forward, then those events feel foreign to us and we have no frame of reference.

How Do Memory Symbols work in Product Design?

Progress tracking is one of the biggest quality-of-life improvements introduced by product design—and one of the best examples of memory symbols. Whether you’re using a wizard-style design pattern or tracking a user’s progress while writing a document, a memory symbol is essentially the user’s stopping point; when we re-surface that stopping point to the user, they can then recollect their thoughts and resume their memory sequence, or process.


Create Experiences Fueled by Memories

When designing software applications, it’s common for designers to conform to common UI patterns. They do this because when a user sees the same experience in a greater frequency, they become acclimated to the pattern. They learn a sequence and they begin to expect things to be arranged in a familiar way.

One of the biggest challenges designers face is in creating a new pattern that is successful. This is why design iterations are so important, because it allows you to test how intuitive a pattern is for your targeted user. However, this process can lead to many iterations and a lot of money—and time—spent on your product (or customer). So, how do you close the gap?

Focus on memory recall.

When the “Pull Down to Refresh” mobile interaction was introduced, it was a brilliant play on memories. Users already used their thumb to slide up and down in order to consume content—so, to use that as a catalyst for users to discover the refresh feature was a fantastic transition. A memory connection was then formed: I now consume and retrieve new content with the same gesture.

In order for you to create new positive memories, you need to make similar connections. You need to find that memory symbol—that association. Use it as a catalyst and test different versions of it.

When testing new designs, watch your hands. Remember what areas your eyes move to. Observe others testing and watch what they do—what they try to do. Everything that’s happening is their mind and body acting out a sequence of memories. All you have to do is exploit that sequence and you will stumble upon some pure design gold.


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