How People Remember Technology

April 18th, 2018

  Pamela Pavliscak

Details do not come readily when we think of everyday experiences. Even something simple we do every day, like brush our teeth or check in on Facebook, is a bit of a blur. We may notice something new at first, especially if it annoys us, “Wait, is this my same toothpaste? They changed the look” or “Why do I have to download Messenger to chat with people?” We notice the good things too, sometimes less vividly than the bad things though. And then, naturally, we adapt.

Since I'm having conversations about technology all the time, in the context of projects for clients and for my own research, I hear how people describe apps they use regularly and ones they have just discovered. People tell me about sites they love and sites they hate, and the sites that leave them indifferent. It struck me that people remember very little of these experiences. And I wanted to learn more about how people remember apps and sites, especially the ones that have a place in their everyday lives.

Understanding Remembered Experiences

Over the past year, I've been asking people to remember their experiences online. I've pursued this research in a few different ways to understand what people remember, how they remember it, and why the memory is important.

First, I asked about one hundred people to draw their favorite site or app from memory. Next, I asked hundreds more people to describe in words what they remembered about their favorite site, app, or technology. Those responses were analyzed and tagged. Finally, for a smaller subset of each group, I conducted follow up interviews to better understand their point of view.

Together the research includes the responses of 535 people from across the United States. Participants represent a span of ages (18-70), ethnicities, and incomes.

Drawing Online Experiences

Initially, I looked at what people remembered from a technology experience through sketching. I asked 106 people to draw what they remembered about a favorite app or website. The prompt left it up to each person to show what they remembered. I also asked for a caption and description as part of the exercise.

About half of the people in this study drew an app icon. One person summed up a trend.

“This image on my phone is the gateway to an app I use every day. I use the app every day for a lot of different things, so I sketched my starting point.”

Drawings of App Icons

Another large segment drew the initial screen of their favorite website or app. It is the screen they see the most, and it's a starting point similar to the app icon drawing. Because there tended to be a bit more detail in these drawings though, some new patterns emerged. In these drawings, the things people found the most meaningful, or did the most frequently, surfaced while other details were left out.

Facebook drawing

When drawing a favorite site, app, or technology, people sometimes were not sure if they were mixing up their site with another similar one. “You know, a lot of the sites look similar to each other, so I could be mis-remembering.” Sometimes people were not sure about how the site looked now compared to how they remembered it. “I feel like this site changes a lot, so it may not look like this anymore. This is just how I picture it.”

Asking people to remember and sketch a favorite experience revealed two important findings.

People remember how they start. Despite what we know about peak-end rule, starting points seem to figure in prominently to what we remember about technologies. Not necessarily a landing page or a home page, but where a person feels like they begin an experience whether an app icon, login page, or otherwise.

People also remember the most meaningful aspects of the experience. These may be the most intense moments of an experience, but more often these are the interactions repeated each time they use a site or app.

Not a single person drew the end point of an experience. This may be because many online experiences don't have a clear endpoint, but are continued throughout the day or revisited again and again. Even travel, banking, money management, and shopping—experiences that would seem to have a clear endpoint—were not perceived that way.

Describing Online Experiences

Next, I asked people as part of an online study to describe a favorite site, app, or technology. Again the prompt was open, with no suggestion of how to answer or examples of possible answers.

When asked to describe a favorite site, app, or technology, people rarely described the design itself. If participants said anything about the look and feel, it was about the color (and according to participants, many sites and apps are blue).

A small number, about 6%, noted only that their favorite was easy to use, clear, or concise. They described general qualities of the experience itself. In interviews, people frequently said that they just didn't remember specifics about how the site or app looked and where things were on a screen or in a process.

Some people described their favorite technologies in terms of what they could do. About 26% recalled what the activities the site or app enabled. “I can track my steps and this helps me toward my weight loss goal” or “I save money using this app” or “This app lets me create playlists and discover new music” were the types of responses that were grouped into this category.

More people (65%) described how they felt using their favorite site, app, or technology. “It makes me feel a little creative when I pull different looks together” and “Having information about my home when I'm away eases my anxiety” and “Seeing my spending organized makes me happier than I'd imagined” were examples in this category.

Describing a favorite technology revealed that people remember emotions more than anything else about the experience. Looking at favorite sites or apps, the emotions run positive but are still nuanced. For most people, this meant feeling powerful, smart, connected, engaged, creative. For some, emotions were about reducing negative feelings more than nurturing positive feelings.

People Remember the Feeling

The experience people have with a site, app, or device is holistic. The online experience, the offline experience, previous use, competitor use, and opinions of others are bundled together when people recall the experience. People have trouble teasing apart design, activities, and feelings.

Certain moments do stand out more than others. The starting point of a technology experience makes a powerful imprint on memory. Meaningful moments can be recalled readily too. But the endpoint of an experience seems to make less of an imprint on memory.

More than anything else though, people focus on the feeling an experience evokes when asked to remember a site, app, or device. Favorite experiences make people feel good about themselves. In the end, it is not about the technology but rather about the person on the other end.