The way consumers perceive the world — and the products or services they come in contact with — has been shaped by a lifetime of experiences and information held deep within our memories. That’s why designing to influence behaviors and change habits is extremely difficult — because these patterns and modes of thinking are actually solidified in-memory structures, subconsciously impacting the decisions we make and how we behave.

Instead of fighting against these existing perceptions, learn how THRIVE’s design research expertise can help you tap into user memory and use it to make your designs resonate.  

The human memory is a powerful thing. An amazingly complex system of data storage and processing, it not only enables us to retain information, but it also influences the decisions we make and how we behave.

Think about our daily habits. Habits are why you drive the same route to work each day, making turns without even thinking about it; or why you couldn’t keep up with running on that treadmill you bought after just a few weeks. Both creating them and changing habits is incredibly difficult because these patterns of behavior have become solidified into memory structures, ingrained over time until our actions are automatic. (Think of memory structures like different storage units within the brain where related types of experiences and information are grouped and held.) This is why designing to influence behaviors and change habits is extremely difficult; despite our best intentions, sometimes we fail to use a new product because of the way our memory structures are conditioned.


So it all begs the question: Instead of fighting against these engrained behaviors, why not leverage existing memory structures as a baseline for designing new products and services?


People have two types of memory, implicit and explicit. Explicit requires active recall and effort to remember facts. Implicit memory, on the other hand, is comprised of things we don’t purposefully recall. It essentially uses previous experience to remember things without thinking about them; it’s used unconsciously and unintentionally. Habits, for example, are a type of implicit memory. Another form of implicit memory are conditioned associations; thoughts and behaviors influenced by the stimulus we encounter on a daily basis. Certain visuals, sounds, words, smells, and even physical interactions and movements can subconsciously elicit a certain response based on prior exposure: If your friend was telling you about a recent trip to Italy, you might suddenly have a craving for pasta.

At THRIVE, we seek to understand consumers’ memory structures through in-depth qualitative research, exploring the way they perceive the world — and the products or services they come in contact with. By tying these insights back into your product design and strategy, you can align new products and services with users’ existing memory structures, reducing any consumer resistance and gaining easier buy-in.

Tapping into implicit memory and associated behaviors help in 3 important ways:

1. Identifying opportunities for new products and services.

Through a range of research methods, you can get a better idea of why your customers choose to use specific tools over others due to the memory structures they have in place. For instance, if your company is specifically looking for opportunities within the bathroom, we can utilize a series of stimulus and contextual inquiry to identify outside category products and solutions that achieve the same emotions and benefits that consumers have identified as desirable within their bathroom space (e.g. relaxation, durability, quality, etc.) These attributes can then be carried forward into the design process to explore, iterate, and define opportunities to achieve these emotions and benefits.

2. Establishing strong emotional connections with consumers.

to achieve great customer experiences, let the customer drive

By using features and attributes that already trigger specific emotions or convey benefits that consumers have grown to believe are true, it’s much easier to connect with consumers — and maintain that connection. Think back to your first cell phone. If you got your first mobile device in the pre-iPhone era, you’re probably picturing a big brick-looking thing that wouldn’t break even if you threw it across the room. Times have definitely changed, but we will never forget how those phones influenced what we believe to be true about durable technology. We perceive technology to be durable by using many of the attributes we experienced with the initial technology we interacted with in the past. Those same elements can be used when designing new technology today if the desired benefit is still the same — a durable and reliable device. Physical buttons, materiality, size, shape, all of these things draw on specific connections and associations that consumers have built-in their memories to convey durability. When used in current designs, it can have a similar effect that helps further reinforce and build on the structures that are already in place.

3. Increasing awareness and adoption.

Products and services that align with existing memory structures stand out and appeal to consumers more because they implicitly assess features and attributes that they recognize to represent certain emotions and benefits. Before doing research and reading reviews, consumers have already made key judgments about products purely based on their initial perceptions (look, feel, smell, etc.). Capture their attention by using familiar cues they associate with the benefits your product delivers. The brand has a lot to do with initial awareness, and when combined with product and service design that appeal to memory structures, consumers are more likely to purchase and adopt.

Remember the last time you bought a toaster? Maybe not, but you likely browsed the aisle at a department store, comparing your options… and my goodness there are a lot of them. That bright red one might have caught your eye, the one with the chrome knobs on the front that reminded you of the blender your mom had when she made you those delicious milkshakes as a kid. And feel how the knob makes a click when you turn it into place; it’s just like the air conditioning knob you love in your car! It’s so satisfying feeling the resistance as you click the knob into place. What about that other toaster with a heftier looking design? Remember how the last toaster you owned was made out of metal and weighed a ton, but lasted forever? Price aside (mainly because most options are similarly priced), all these cues are the associations you have engrained in your mind from past experiences about what a functional, practical, delightful and well-designed kitchen tool looks and works like. If you can leverage those associations and design products that align with memory structures, you’re more likely to increase awareness of your product and brand while also making it easier for users to adopt it into their current lifestyle. Because who wouldn’t want a product that felt like it was designed specifically for them?

What cues has your brand already built with your consumers? How can you identify and define new cues using preexisting memory structures already in place? We can help you find the answers to these questions and more, teasing apart the differences between explicit and implicit memories so you can identify new opportunities, design for quicker adoption, and create stickier experiences.

Contact us today to talk about how our design research expertise can help uncover the deep consumer insights you need to illuminate new opportunities and drive growth.

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