Human Memory & Hilarious UX Design

This morning I was reading Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein (buy it, it’s fabulous), in which he describes how anyone can master great feats of memory. Key to the technique – first documented in the 90s BC – is coming up with a novel image in your mind that represents the item you’re trying to remember, then placing that image in a physical space that you’re very familiar with, so you can retrace your steps and remember a long list of items in the right order. For example Joshua recounts a lesson from his memory tutor in which he’s told to picture a big jar of pickled garlic in the driveway of his childhood home – with all its smells and tastes – then as he approaches the front door, he sees Claudia Schiffer naked in a pool of cottage cheese. Walking through the house, he keeps conjuring bizarre images and placing them along the way. The result is Joshua easily recalls a long list of hard-to-remember items in order, including pickled garlic and cottage cheese.

The more novel, funny and let’s face it filthy the image, the easier it’ll be to recall. As Joshua puts it, “Evolution has programmed our brains to find two things particularly interesting, and therefore memorable: jokes and sex – and especially, it seems, jokes about sex.”

While reading all this and doing a bit of memory training myself (I was particularly pleased with my imagery for recalling different parts of the brain, including Keanu Reeves in his matrix gear eating an apple while texting – i.e. Neocortex… and some others I won’t tell you about), I got distracted, picked up my laptop to do some sort of mind-expanding research only to be diverted, inevitably, by Facebook. Luckily, to save me from myself, last night I’d installed StayFocusd, a productivity extension for Google Chrome that helps you stay focused by restricting the amount of time you can spend on distracting sites.

Having reached my 10 minutes per day distracting sites limit (granted, it was a stupid limit, particularly for a social business consultant), I tried to change my limit to 20 minutes. StayFocusd then bombarded me with a series of modal windows, progressively escalating the hell it was giving me each time I clicked ‘OK’. After several OKs, I felt too guilty and failish to continue my time-wasting quest, so I eventually hit ‘cancel’ and stuck with my 10-minute limit. Making a futile attempt to return to Facebook, I was diverted to a big white page with ‘Shouldn’t you be working?’ in massive letters. Twitter? Same. Underneath ‘Shouldn’t you be working?’ read ‘Have you found StayFocusd useful? Please make a $10 donation!’. So I made a donation. Genius.

The UX design – specifically copywriting – was funny, pushy and guilt-tripping. But I knew it was right. It was also so human that I almost called the Chrome extention ‘he’, instead of ‘it’.

As someone who’s designing software at the mo’, it’s easy to think the latest web 2.0 style is cool, clean, funky and current – and I suppose it is all those things – but in amongst all this cool, clean, funky currentness, we need to make sure we don’t lose sight of making UX memorable and remarkable (worth making a remark about). Just being cool and useful won’t smack people over the head vs being cool, useful and bold.

Even the most enterprise of apps could benefit from stretching the humanity in their UX design. How could it be funnier? How could it tell jokes? How could it piss people off, in a good way, by being too right? How could it be sexy? What would make it so novel that it’s burned in long-term memory banks?

As a deep(ish) understanding of human brains, decision-making and behaviour goes mainstream (with the help of folks like Joshua), our technologies will become increasingly human; and as Stayfocusd proves, this doesn’t just mean fancy implants, sensors and nanotech – it can be as simple as a well-written line of text, or an error message with attitude.

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