There is a great guest blog on ScientificAmerican.com this week that summarize the recent research on false memories and how easy it is to implant them.
Of course, there were those famous cases from the 1990s where therapists “recovered” repressed memories of abuse in some of their patients. They later found out that the events never happened, but not before destroying many families after false accusations, lawsuits, criminal cases, and more.
The blog focuses mostly on more controlled studies where false memories are implanted during an experimental protocol. The simplest example is a study where participants are shown a video of a car on car impact and asked either “How fast were the cars going when they hit each other?” or “How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?” Using the stronger term “crashed” changed the way that the subjects encoded the video, even after a week delay. For example, they falsely remembered that there was broken glass at the scene.
A more recent study the blog describes looked into the domain of eyewitness accounts of criminal acts. This is a very important topic because false memories could lead to innocent people being convicted of crimes and guilty people getting away. In the study, participants were shown videos of a man stealing a wallet from a woman and hiding behind a tree. Then a witness reports that the person hid behind a door. When tested immediately, the participants correctly remembered the tree 61% of the time and falsely remembered the door 31% of the time. But after 18 month delay (which is no unusual in our court system), 45% of the participants correctly remembered the tree and 39% falsely remembered the tree. Almost a 50/50 split.
My some lucky coincidence, Koen AT Claes published an article in UX magazine titled “Should we focus on user experience?” The message of the article is that it doesn’t really matter what a user’s actual experience is while using a system, just what he/she remembers. So if we can design our user experiences so that the memory is positive, there can be as many frustrations, confusions, or whatever along the way – it just doesn’t matter.
I have blogged before that the emotion attached to the memory of an event depends on the strongest emotion experienced and the last emotion experienced. So if you are on vacation and have one really great day and end on a high note, the rest of the vacation could have sucked – you will remember it fondly. And the opposite is also true if you have one really bad day or end on a low note. The advice I gave at the time is to make sure you schedule one really kick ass thing to do during any vacation you take. And the vacation can be really short (saving time and money) as long as you get the kick ass activity in. And make sure you don’t schedule the flight home at some miserable or stressful time.
So how do we put these two together? We can design user experiences into our system so that it ends really positively and we implant a false positive memory into the user and we don’t need to worry as much about the rest. The details would depend on the system, but one example would be putting a lot of work into your confirmation screen and perhaps a thank you follow up. After a long, frustrating, confusing purchase we can send the user a note that they are awesome, your favorite customer, give them an intangible but meaningful perk of some kind, and then still end up smelling like roses.
I am typing this somewhat tongue in cheek – I don’t think we should ever design bad process flows or screens and make up for it with some lipstick on the pig. Better for both to be good – the real experience and the remembered one. But it is good insight in terms of allocating limited resources around the process. More on the later steps, even if it means less on the early ones. Unless of course you get user drop-off before they even get to the later good stuff. So it is complicated. But good to keep in mind.