Your “Experiencing Self” vs. Your “Remembering Self” and the Implications for Software Design !

I have been attending TED for a couple of years and again this year was amazed by the speakers and their insights.  For those of you not familiar with TED I would suggest that you visit the TED website  where you will find a treasure chest of the most amazing talks on a broad range of subjects – I guarantee that you will be inspired.

TED 2010 did not disappoint – far from it.  Several talks inspired me personally but there was one that stood out for its simple yet profound insight – Daniel Kahneman’s talk on “The Riddle of experience vs. memory”.  Widely regarded as the world’s most influential living psychologist, Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel in Economics for his pioneering work in behavioral economics — exploring the irrational ways we make decisions about risk (TED description).  I have the deepest respect for people who can take the most complex of subjects and explain them in the most simplest of ways – this is was Daniel was able to do.

Now I will certainly not try to summarize or fully explain Daniel’s talk in this blog – for that I suggest that you visit the TED website to listen to the talk first hand.  Let me though try and provide you with the basic premise of his talk.  Daniel talks about  the “confusion between experience and memory: basically it’s between being happy in your life and being happy about your life or happy with your life”.  He provides several examples of the difference between the two. In one example Daniel talks about a person who listens to 20 minutes of glorious symphony music yet at the very end there is a dreadful screeching sound.  In reporting this incident the listener said that the screeching sound had “ruined the whole experience”.  Yet, as Daniel notes, the experience had not been ruined – ” What it had ruined were the memories of the experience. He had had the experience. He had had 20 minutes of glorious music. That counted for nothing because he was left with a memory; the memory was ruined, and the memory was all that he had gotten to keep.”

“What this is telling us, really, is that we might be thinking of ourselves and of other people in terms of two selves. There is an experiencing self, who lives in the present and knows the present, is capable of re-living the past, but basically it has only the present. It’s the experiencing self that the doctor approaches — you know, when the doctor asks, “Does it hurt now when I touch you here?” And then there is a remembering self, and the remembering self is the one that keeps score, and maintains the story of our life, and it’s the one that the doctor approaches in asking the question, “How have you been feeling lately?” or “How was your trip to Albania?” or something like that. Those are two very different entities, the experiencing self and the remembering self and getting confused between them is part of the mess of the notion of happiness. Now, the remembering self is a storyteller. And that really starts with a basic response of our memories –it starts immediately. We don’t only tell stories when we set out to tell stories. Our memory tells us stories, that is, what we get to keep from our experiences is a story. ” (quoted text is an excerpt from transcript of Daniel Kahneman’s 2010 TED Talk)

Implications for Software Design:  Daniel Kahneman’s talk and insights provide important lessons for the technology industry.  I think that we in the technology industry – especially the enterprise software industry – have forgotten how  important it is for users to be happy when using our software products.   Consumers take for granted that the software product will deliver on the basic function that it is designed to achieve – complete a purchase request, format a document or manage a supply chain.   However, all to often the software is difficult to use, not intuitive and requires too many steps to complete a simple task.

If you view Daniel’s full TED Talk you will note that in essence what he is saying is that your memory of a particular situation or event  matters more than the experience of that event or situation.  This insight can have important implications on how we design software to ensure that the memory of the use of the software is positive – even if the experience during the use was painful.  Maybe Apple had this figured out a long time ago !

I welcome your thoughts and ideas on this topic.




5 Responses

  1. i completely agree about the importance of the subjective experience and recollection/memory of the consumption of a service or product for the overall happieness of your customers. and for services/products where the outcome is very difficult to evaluate for a customer, or where the customer is not willing (consciously or subconsciously) to invest in a “rational” evaluation, that experience and its recollection could be all that matters.


    p.s.: actually, my phd thesis were in behavioral finance / marketing and i can not overstate the importance of “the blue suit” for some customers when it comes to investment advice, which has rationally nothing to do with the investment outcome. but its part of their experience and that is how they judge the overall quality of the service.

  2. Zia, excellent one – a must see that talk.

    Think there is even more parallels to Enterprise Software; in particular the data model one is stuck in. After all what Kahneman talks about is how humans handles data 🙂

    But alas my comment rambled on and became a post instead, wouldn’t clutter you page here… so here’s the extrapolation…


    • Sig, thanks for your comment. Nothing better than a blog post that builds on another blog post. I enjoyed reading your much better written discussion about enterprise software, happiness and data. Those 3 words don’t often appear in the same sentence together.

      Great post !


  3. Bernd,

    Thank you for your comments. Your comment on the blue suit is an interesting one. Advertising is ofcourse based on many of these approaches and certainly the sales process as you point out.

    I once had a pretty bad call with a support person at a tech firm – but all i really remember was that at the end she really apologized and I felt that she was concered with solving the problem – so the memory of it was positive even though it was 2 hours of painful conversation !


  4. @SIG: I liked your post very much, especially the last two sentences;)

    And @Zia: It is much more than “just” advertising and the sales process. You can (almost?) say it´s about everything a bank or an investment advisor does for you, and depending on the customer, who is more or less able and/or willing to judge rationally in retrospect, shortterm and longterm, the “emotional stuff”, we might call it the experience, therefore counts immense for many.

    But the interesting point about that in the context here might be, that while banks have understood that and therefore customize their advisory services according to different target groups, most enterprise software companies offer “one system for all”, or not?

    So it´s not only about improving the experience of software usage per se, but improving the experience in a target group oriented way, or in other words, that software usage should be fun, but that that fun is different for everybody.

    There´s a lot to learn (and quite a lot to improve, for most) for enterprise software companies, but that also offers many opportunities;)


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