pretty horribly wrong. But afterward? The unpleasantness fades
and the fond memories remain,
perhaps to intensify, and even
get amplified beyond reality.
Psychologists who study natural memories are quite familiar with these results. People
sometimes fondly remember
events that never happened (and
strenuously insist that they did
happen, despite the evidence). In
one experiment people recalled
seeing Bugs Bunny at Disney
World despite the fact that he is
not a Disney character and could
not be seen there. As the authors
of this study said, “To know that
a memory is reconstructed and
not necessarily a veridical representation does not make it any
less meaningful or enjoyable at
the time the person is remembering the event .”
to demonstrate various features
they stumble, flail away for a
while, apologize, and give up.
So what? These are all minor
inconveniences in a delightful
experience. People love these
products. They would buy them
again, recommend them to
their friends, eagerly purchase
the next versions? Some people
even save the boxes their devices came in, tell stories about
their love for them, and take
great pride in ownership.
experience, which includes the
negative event. And of course
my fondness may reflect the
fact that I am an observer and
storyteller, so every experience,
whether positive or negative,
adds to my collection, often
useful at unknown times in the
future (for example, suddenly
recalling it while writing this
article). Would I want to go back
to Spain? Yes. Would I want that
exact sequence of events to be
repeated? Of course not. But the
disagreement between the two
of us reflects real disagreements
among people. Generalizations
about human behavior should
always be viewed with caution.
 Braun-La Tour, K.
A., M. S. La Tour, J.
E. Pickrell, and E. F.
Loftus,. “How and
When Advertising Can
Influence Memory for
Journal of Advertising
33, no. 4 (2004): 7-25.
Although the studies have
primarily looked at events that
are anticipated as being positive,
I presume similar psychological mechanisms would apply to
negative events, such as dental
surgery, a colonoscopy, or other
Those of us in the design
profession can learn a lot from
these observations. Do people
hate the lines at a Disney theme
park? Absolutely. Would they
go back? Most people would.
Disney does its best to provide
delightful, memorable experiences, the key words being
“memorable” and “delightful.”
Do we really get frustrated
when our iPhone or iPod crash-es, when we can’t remember
how to turn off the iPod, when
we discover we can’t change
the battery, when the case
scratches? People brag to me
about how easy these devices
are to use, but when I ask them
In my own life I have experienced this phenomenon. I
remember a vacation when my
wife and I drove from central
Spain to France. Along the way
we stopped at a lovely store and
purchased a picnic lunch, but
after driving into the countryside, climbing up a hill, and setting up on the grass with a wonderful view, we had a nasty surprise: On opening the package of
food, we discovered garbage and
scraps instead of the wonderful
sausage and cheese we thought
we had bought. A horrid experience that is, for me at least, now
one of the highlights of the trip.
Rosy remembrance indeed.
So what does this mean to the
designer? Design for memory.
Exploit it. What is the most
important part of an experience? Psychologists emphasize
what they call the primacy and
recency effects, with recency
being the most important.
March + April 2009
As is true with all psychological generalizations, people vary.
There is solid experimental
evidence to defend the general
proposition that the positive
outweighs the negative, but
not always. In the case of the
drive through Spain, my wife
vehemently objected to my
rosy remembrance. “I totally
disagree with you,” she wrote
in the margins of the manuscript. “You need to explain how
a normal person could have a
fond feeling for such a negative
memory. I would never wish to
repeat that experience!” True,
my fond memory is of the total
In other words, what is most
important? The ending. What is
most important after that? The
start. So make sure the beginning and the end are wonderful.
Make sure there are reminders
of the good parts of the experience: Photographs, mementos,
trinkets. Make sure the experience delights, whether it be the
simple unfolding of a car’s cup
holder or the band serenading
departing cruise-ship customers.
Accentuate the positive and it
will overwhelm the negative.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Don Norman
wears many hats, including cofounder of
the Nielsen Norman group, professor at
Northwestern University, and author. His
latest book is The Design of Future Things.
He lives at jnd.org.
© 2009 ACM 1072-5220/09/0300 $5.00