TL;DNR

  • Memory is fallible, and humans tend to remember the most intense part and the ending of any experience.
  • Finding systems that work for you is essential to productivity.
  • Limit the number of choices a user has to (or has the opportunity to) make. Choose smart defaults and hide most options.

I have a habit when it comes to books. When I read a book, I almost always underline/take notes in the margin. I started doing so sometime in high school, when Literature teachers started telling us it was okay to write in books. The practice carried me through my studies, and I’ve enjoyed it so much it’s spilled over into my personal/leisure reading (mind you, all of my leisure reading is non-fiction). You can actually tell which books in my personal collection were books I really enjoyed/valued based on how heavily marked up they are.

Since graduating from college, I’ve started a new version of the practice. Now, after finishing a book (sometimes immediately, but usually after a little time), I go back through the book and look over all of the underlining and notes I took. Generally speaking, when I underline something, it’s because it had a certian salience or value to me at the time. So, as I recount these notes, I take a mini post-it note and write whatever value I was trying to glean from it, and then I stick it to the margin of that page. The results look something like this:

Not only does this practice reinforce what I’ve learned from that book, but it also changes the way I’ve experienced reading that book. In Barry Schwartz’s book “The Paradox of Choice”, he cites a study by Daniel Kahneman which recounts the way we experience and remember the utility of something (that is, how much we enjoyed it).

What Kahneman et al. found is that our remembered utility is governed by two main factors:

  1. Our experience of the peak (or most intense) portion (good/bad)
  2. Our experience of the ending (good/bad)

As you can imagine, this has an interesting implication for all parts of life, but particularly, for the design of user interfaces and user experiences.

Anecdotally, I’ve heard people (users) explain their experience with a particular piece of technology. While I don’t recall hearing much about the ending (maybe I just don’t pay attention), it seems that many users are “sold” on one particular instance where either a) the system did something cool/fun/awesome (e.g. MailChimp’s Freddie the monkey’s awesome quotes) or b) the product was particularly handy/useful in a given situation.

The minor details of the interface, animations, colors, typography, etc. that designers and marketing teams undoubtedly spent hours laboring over have almost no value to users. I’m sure they add to the positive experience, and “grease the slicks” between the user and their end goal, but when we really get down and think about what it is we’re designing for, the minor details that can hold projects up (should) melt away. Your perfectly-aligned-and-proportioned interface elements won’t matter at all if the user can’t do what they want/need to do with your product.

Schwartz also discusses an incredible array of information and concepts that I believe everyone should be aware of, such as opportunity costs, satisficing vs. maximizing, and the role of utility (esp. diminishing utility) in our daily lives. I’d highly recommend giving it a read, as I’ve personally seen benefit in my life by putting some of his suggestions into play.



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