February 15, 2019
It was a gorgeous Florida day in May of 2003... the day I married my husband. Although it was over 15 years ago, I can recount many of the moments as clearly as if it were yesterday. The moment I first saw him for photos before the ceremony. The crimson red carpet on the floor of the church (this memory may be vivid because I really didn’t like it). The minister laughing, breaking down, and calling my husband “J.R.” as he introduced us as husband and wife because calling him “Jonathan” seemed so foreign to him. Giggling and swinging around the dance floor to “Barbie Girl” with my best friend from high school and almost wiping out. Leaving the reception in my black Saab convertible with the top down and stopping just around the corner at the Hess gas station to get water and begging my husband to buy snacks because I socialized too much at the wedding and didn’t eat.
As I take this stroll down memory lane, it seems like a movie replaying in my mind. But, it’s not. Although it may seem like it, memories aren’t archived in our minds like a movie on our cloud storage account. We can’t just stream them in their entirety and see all of the details accurately - without change. Every time we remember an event nerve pathways fire in our brain to reconstruct the memory.
As UX professionals, this is important to understand and consider - especially as we’re conducting user research and testing. Let me say it again for emphasis... every time we remember an event nerve pathways fire in our brain to reconstruct the memory.
The memories we recall are affected by the time that has past, our state of mind during the event, our experiences since the event, and the circumstances under which we are remembering the event. My husband and I are happily married; however, if we were divorced, my reconstructed memories may emphasize negative moments that related to our relationship’s eventual demise. (Don’t worry, honey, all of my memories are filled with blissful happiness).
Over time, our mind fills in the memory gaps with made up events that seem real. These could be memories triggered by an image or someone else’s account of the event. For example, I don’t believe I remember being incredibly hot on my wedding day, but one of my favorite photos captures me with my dress hiked up over the wall air conditioning unit trying to cool down. I’m not sure how hot it was that day, but after seeing the photo multiple times, I automatically remember it being really hot that day.
Experiences that occur after an event takes place can also alter your memory of the original event. Several years ago, I was chatting with one of my best friends at the time and she mentioned not being invited to my wedding. I could have sworn she was present at the event. This “false” memory occurred because she had been present for all of the major milestones in my life since my wedding - from holidays, to starting my new company, to celebrations. Therefore, over time, my memory of the event began to include her.
In addition to the influence subsequent events have on shaping your memories, the words used by others when discussing the event have also been proven to influence your original memory. In their 1974 psychological study entitled “Reconstruction of Automobile Destruction”, Loftus and Palmer illustrated that the language used in eyewitness testimony can alter memories. After viewing videos of car accidents in a laboratory setting, study participants were asked to recount the details and estimate the speed at which the cars were moving at the time of the accident. When asking the questions, the interviewers used different verbs (hit/smashed/collided/bumped) to see if it would change the participants’ responses. And, it did. The speed at which participants estimated the cars were moving differed based upon the verbs used during the questioning with the highest speed estimates being provided when the interviewer used the verb “smashed.” Whether the verbiage used elicited a response bias or truly altered the participant’s memory of the event is still uncertain. However, it does prove the potential for unreliable or biased responses.
So how does all of this tie back to user research? As user experience professionals, we are always interested in getting to know our users so we can utilize our research to inform our design decisions. A key component of discovery often involves some form of surveys or interviews. Whether we are creating a journey map, empathy map, or just documenting our findings, we need to be aware of the ways our users’ reconstructed memories can be influenced and take what they say with a grain of salt. Ensure you speak to enough people and validate your findings before you act upon them. Ideally, you will incorporate observational methods into your discovery activities as well to validate that what your users are saying is actually what they are doing.