Experience & memory in design patterns

Think of a pressing button on an old soda vending machine. In one moment, you’ve experienced the sticky residue on the plastic surface, the dim LED lighting the faded logo, and the irregular vibration of the underlying spring and plastic. The resulting physical clatter of your canned beverage and the anticipation of high-sugar refreshment complete the experience. Your brain is firing in a highly distinct, complex pattern while all of this happens.

Compare the analog plastic button to an ‘order’ button for a basic soda ordering app. It’s a flatly lit representation of an area, a little bit larger than your fingerprint, that perhaps changes color when tapped. The button has no physical movement, no stickyness, and little visual ‘life’. It lives on a pocket-sized rectangle (ie a mobile device) housing thousands of other similar experiences. (slide to open, swipe swipe, tap an icon, wait, etc.)

The associated neural activity triggered by our online soda ordering app is simplified and generic. Fewer experiences to achieve that soda mean fewer neurons are fired. While on the surface it may seem simpler experiences are easier to remember, the reality is that more nuanced experiences stay with us longer. They’re subconsciously embedded, away from the volatile short term memory area of our brain.

The real world is rich with design language which helps us learn and remember experiences on an instinctual level. As product designers we need to distill these experiences and reconfigure them into new patterns. Whether skeumorphic, kinesthetic, or abstract, the resulting experience needs to be unique. These are the experiences that people will remember best.

The end result is people will better understand and remember your product, and as a result, how it’s going to change their life.