Experience vs memory

13 June 2014

When you get a moment, go and watch this TED talk by Daniel Kahneman: The riddle of Experience vs Memory.

Using examples from vacations to colonoscopies, Nobel laureate and founder of behavioral economics Daniel Kahneman reveals how our “experiencing selves” and our “remembering selves” perceive happiness differently. This new insight has profound implications for economics, public policy — and our own self-awareness.

It’s a fairly deep concept and has myriad implications on how it affects us on a psychological level. I wanted to summarise a couple of initial thoughts I had about how it affects User Experience on a website.

What Kanhneman demonstrates is that our memory of an experience does not necessarily match our perception of the experience at the time it was happening. Our memories of a good experience can be marred if something bad happens at the end of it. Equally, our memories of an overall bad experience can be improved if something happens at the end that offers a better level of experience that has been had up till then.

From the perspective of User Experience on our website, this is important. We know it is important to give a good experience to users at the time of use. If they don’t have a good experience at any point, our users can very easily leave our site for a competitors.

Where we risk dropping off in the experience is after a goal has been completed. For instance, on an ecommerce site: when assessing the user experience of the site we will likely focus on the customer journey from the point of searching for a product, providing them with high quality product information and a user friendly checkout process.

If we can demonstrate our work across these areas has eased the customer journey and improved conversion rates — we’ll likely see that as success. However, many websites rely on repeat visits from customers, or having customers recommend them to their friends.

What Kahneman’s theory suggests is that even though your customer has had a positive experience, you can’t assume it will necessarily be remembered positively. An example you’ll probably have experienced before is going through a great website to make a purchase and then be passed to an offsite payment gateway to enter your card details. Although convenient for the site owners, they have no control over the UI for these 3rd party gateways and the user experience on them is often poor. All the hard work on the user experience of your own site can be lost as the final step for the customer is poor.

Alternatively — even if the checkout is kept onsite and made user friendly — a customer’s long term experience of you can become poor if your subsequent transactional emails, delivery service or marketing emails are badly designed. In short — remember that a customer’s memory of you is likely to be only as good as their last experience with you.

You can use this theory to your advantage if you have fundamental usability issues that for some reason or other will be difficult to fix.

Lets say, for instance, you have an old site with a badly designed platform that you can’t update (probably time or budget constraints). You know the user experience is mostly bad — but are limited in your options for improving it. You have an opportunity to redeem your customers perception of their experience on your site if you can at least offer a really good service at the end of the journey.

Even if the entire on-site journey is less than satisfactory — you can focus on designing some fantastic transactional emails or innovative packaging solutions or highly targeted, relevant (and generous) marketing emails. Memories of a poor experience on your website can be remedied by subsequent, highly positive, interactions.

It’s not a perfect solution for coping with a badly designed site — because you still have the problem of the customer’s experience at the time of using your site and the chances they’ll abandon mid-way through the visit. It is an opportunity however to focus your resources in a way that will give you best possible returns.

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