UX Design, Human Memory, and a 1950s Japanese Crime Movie

What do you get when you combine UX design, the psychology of human memory, and a Japanese crime movie from 1950? Although this sounds like the opening line of a bad joke the answer is better UX design. Good user experience is something all designers want to achieve, and one of the secrets to achieving this is to understand how people remember things.

How is memory important in UX design? It is most important in the user testing and research phase. There are lots of ways you can do this research, although one of the easiest is asking users for their opinion. This is often done in a survey.

It is a method that has limitations, not least because it doesn't offer easy opportunities for follow-up questions, but it is quick, cost effective, and easy. Here is the real question, though - can you trust the data from this sort of research?

The Rashomon Effect

People complete surveys using memory. When looking at whether such memories are accurate, psychologists refer to a phenomenon known as the Rashomon Effect.

The Rashomon Effect was named after an award-winning Japanese movie released in 1950 called Rashomon. The story is about a bandit who is accused of raping a woman and killing her husband. In the movie, four individuals, or "witnesses", to the crime, describe what happened. Each of them presents a different account of the events.

They are not telling lies, but the truth they tell is their version of the truth. It is influenced by their circumstances, their past experiences, and their prospects for the future.

The movie ends in a state of complete confusion, with nobody knowing what actually happened.


Human Memory and UX Design

Human memory is therefore not reproductive. Instead, it is reconstructive, with that reconstruction taking place in an incredibly complicated way.

Users who complete a survey about your UX design behave no differently - they use their memory to answer the survey questions, and they answer honestly, but the memory is reconstructive. This is why you get such contradictory answers to questions, even when talking to similar groups of people.


Getting Better Research Data

This doesn't mean you should stop surveying users about your designs. Surveys remain an important part of the research process, and the data is valuable.

You shouldn't rely on it exclusively to take UX design-related decisions, though. The only way you can overcome problems with memory reconstruction when testing and analysing UX design with real users is to actually observe them in action.

You can do this through real-life observation, although that is challenging in some situations. You can also do it through formal usability testing. This is where you bring a focus group of people together purely for the purpose of testing and observation.

You cannot improve the memory of users, but you can get more accurate data from usability testing. When you combine the two methods of research - surveys and observation - you will have reliable data for taking UX design decisions.