Designing Forgettable Experiences

In an Attention Economy, understanding how we forget is as important as knowing how we remember. Alastair Somerville helped workshop participants to map how we all remember and forget, and explored how to structure exciting future design with elements made to be forgotten.

Alastair has spent a lot of time working on projects related to dementia, and identified an issue of symmetry when we talk about creating memorable experiences. He argued that we have to have forgetting, and we don’t talk about it often enough.

He began by asking participants to let themselves drift back through their memory to a summer holiday, remembering the context and the sensory details. He asked us to change view points, looking at the same scene from the perspective of different people. Memories are social – they are held between us and the people we know. Participants were encouraged to share their memories, if they wished.

This was an example of a guided reminisce technique called DIVE, which was developed for people aged 40-60 to help reconsolidate memory over time.

When you talk about autobiographical memory, memory traces are a better way of describing what’s going on. Memories are not solid lumps – they are drawn out and sketched across your brain, so there are ways of playing with memory.

Alastair noted that it is very difficult to know if a memory from earlier than age 10 is actually your own – it may be a memory held by family and friends and told back to you. At points in your life your memory is held by other people. When talking about memory, never ask a single person.

So, why design for forgettable experiences?

Alastair showed a clip from The Aviator, where Howard Hughes observes that without the background to the film footage of the fighter planes, the viewer has no way to judge the speed. This also worries Alastair about the way we design – we need perspective and depth to design correctly. Memory adds this depth.

In our work, we are all framing experiences, and often this means we look just at the person (or user) in our frame. We need to add mental models to add depth, and go further back to the forgotten events.

Alastair explained that memory traces may take up to two days to lay down in the brain, so we don’t need to focus on the moment on the screen right now. We can disrupt memorability in different ways.

Repetition over time can create forgettability, because this disrupts the memory, as it never gets the change to form.

Things that have been finished can also be forgotten. In human-centred experience design, we need to make sure that the experience stops, so people have the opportunity to choose whether to remember or forget the experience. However, if the experience is left unfinished (for example, because you keep sending them emails) it will become memorable, but for all the wrong reasons. Alastair feels that we do this too much and we need to consider completeness to make sure that the experiences we design are finished.

Alastair focussed in on two ways of playing with memory that he felt UX designers should understand:

The first involves creating forgettable experiences by restoring executive function by eliminating concern about a future experience.

The second is the use of akrasia, which is the inability to remember your personal moral position when you are caught up in a process. This is a way of using forgettability in frictionless design to encourage people to make decisions that they might later regret, and is a form of dark pattern.

In a practical exercise, Alastair asked groups to apply these ideas to an airline booking site, by either:

1. Creating a memorable experience through a memorable, ethical flight booking system; or

2. Building a forgettable experience for an accessible flight booking system.

He concluded by emphasising that we need think about both memorable and forgettable experiences. We can’t design memorable, fun experiences if we don’t work with forgettability.


About Alastair

Alastair Somerville is a sensory design consultant. He provides expert advice on cognition and person-centered design to companies and public organisations who provide both physical and digital products or services. He facilitates workshops on sensory and emotional design for corporations, like Google, and major conferences, including UX Lisbon, SouthBy Southwest (SxSW) and UX Week. He is currently involved in cognitive accessibility projects for public transport in London and design for happiness in museums and visitor attractions.