Memory Is More Important
Donald A. Norman
Nielsen Norman Group and Northwestern University | firstname.lastname@example.org
“Your discussion regarding … the fact that memory of an event
is more important than the experience made me remember my trip
to Thailand a few years ago...
• I traveled for three weeks and lost 10 pounds
because I didn’t like any food.
• There were insects on steroids everywhere I turned
• And the restrooms were no joy...
However, I had the time of my life and I would go back in a second.”
(email from Tammy Guy, Nov. 10, 2008.
Reproduced with permission.)
[ 1] Trope, Y. and
110, no. 3 (2003):
As interaction designers, we
strive to eliminate confusion,
difficulty, and above all, bad
experiences. But you know what?
Life is filled with bad experiences. Not only do we survive them,
but in our remembrance of
events, we also often minimize
the bad and amplify the good.
Consider this email from Tammy
Guy, an audience member who
heard me give a talk about the
triumph of memory over actuality. Her email included photographs of fried insect treats, a
huge spider, and an unseemly
looking squat toilet. Would she
go back to Thailand? She would.
If the total experience were good
enough, I’ll bet many of you
What is it about our experiences that lead us to repeat them—
and recommend them—despite
the bad parts? It turns out there
are good psychological reasons.
Let me call it “the distancing
effect.” We remember events
differently when we achieve
distance from them, whether
the distance is time or space.
We anticipate and evaluate the
future, remember and reflect
upon the past. Both are at a
distance in time from the event
itself. In anticipating events, we
review the past in order to make
choices for the future. In remembering events, some things fade
from the mind faster than others. Details fall away faster than
higher-level constructs. Emotions
fade faster than cognitions. In
psychology these phenomena
have been studied under several
rubrics, including “temporal construal theory” and “rosy remembrance.” There is considerable
psychological evidence to support the notion that positive and
negative events fade at different
rates from memory, and that
affective elements fade differently than cognitive ones (or in my
terminology, reflective memories
fade most slowly) [ 1].
The aforementioned email is
but one example of many. The
implication for design is clear.
We should not be devoting all of
our time to providing a perfect
experience. Why not? Well, perfection is seldom possible. More
important, perfection is seldom
worth the effort. So what if people have some problems with an
application, a website, a product,
or a service? What matters is the
total experience. Furthermore,
the actual experience is not as
important as the way in which it
The argument starts with
a simple thought experiment.
Suppose in some task, using a
product or getting a service from
a company, you had some perfectly horrid experience along
with some positive ones. Now,
just suppose you had no memory
of the horrid experience. Would
you go back and repeat the experience? Most people would repeat
something they remembered as
enjoyable. Of course, the premise
is suspicious: If the experience
were truly that horrible, I would
maintain a memory of the negative parts. Yes, but memories for
bad experiences dissipate differently than those for good ones.
The negative emotions associated with the bad parts fade away
more quickly than the cognitive
evaluation does. So although I