Memories can be poisonous to product development

Product development is a creative and detail oriented activity that transforms a market opportunity and technological innovation into successful products. These products are utilized and relied on by their audience or customer and ultimately form a symbiotic relationship, one that creates an emotional experience and builds a brand and loyalty.

Specific emotions and the intensity of these emotions (also known as emotional engagement) are the elements that build the experience, make it unique and memorable. If product developers and commercialization teams could better understand these experiences and the emotions evoked than product improvements and marketing campaigns can be constructed much more efficiently. For example, products that elicit more positive emotion have been correlated with memorability of 46% more details.

To better understand the importance of emotion and memory, here is a brief example; let’s consider a pharmaceutical company that has a new product that can treat an underdiagnosed and undertreated patient population. The pharmaceutical company leverages communications that are intended to educate, yet the idea or concept is eliciting fear from their audience. This approach was a part of the strategy, to create a sense of urgency, but the details communicated that created the sense of urgency were quickly forgotten. The desired behavior was not achieved from this company’s educational efforts and a more patients remained undiagnosed and untreated. In other similar cases, the results were simply not optimal.

Most of this is well understood in today’s world. What led to the failure for the example above, and many other products in development, is the data from which these strategies were created. Voice of the customer, described emotions and memories from the mouth of the target audience and poorly constructed surveys all contribute to the problem. Relying on the written and spoken word from our customer is mostly useless.

In an interesting passage in Think: Why You Should Question Everything, Guy P. Harrison talks about the fallibility of memory. When a person describes how a product saved their life, or some of their most precious memories, they still fail to describe it accurately. Guy explains:

“They [memories] may come to you in great detail and feel 100 percent accurate, but it doesn’t matter. They easily could be partial or total lies that your brain is telling you. Really, the personal past that your brain is supposed to be keeping safe for you is not what you think it is. Your memories are pieces and batches of information that your brain cobbles together and serves up to you, not to present the past as accurately as possible, but to provide you with information that you will likely find to be useful in the present. Functional value, not accuracy, is the priority.

The end result might be informative and useful, but don’t expect it to be perfect. This is important because those who don’t know anything about how memory works already have one foot in fantasyland. Most people believe that our memory operates in a way that is similar to a video camera. They think that the sights, sounds, and feelings of our experiences are recorded on something like a hard drive in their heads. Totally wrong. When you remember your past, you don’t get to watch an accurately recorded replay.”

It is important to point out that feelings, as described by Guy, are the words people choose to describe the emotions they experienced. For example, if the emotion fear was experienced, the subconscious would trigger a change in heart rate, body temperature and a facial expression would emerge (along with other physiologic changes). Once the person felt or acknowledged these changes, homeostasis and the rationale centers of their brain would settle in and attempt to control these changes. The words that person would try to use would be feeling words, trying to make sense of their experience and explain it to others.

To describe to people how memory really works, Harrison puts it this way:

“Imagine a very tiny old man sitting by a very tiny campfire somewhere inside your head. He’s wearing a worn and raggedy hat and has a long, scruffy, gray beard. He looks a lot like one of those old California gold prospectors from the 1800s. He can be grumpy and uncooperative at times, but he’s the keeper of your memories and you are stuck with him. When you want or need to remember something from your past, you have to go through the old codger. Let’s say you want to recall that time when you scored the winning goal in a middle-school soccer match. You have to tap the old coot on the shoulder and ask him to tell you about it. He usually responds with something. But he doesn’t read from a faithfully recorded transcript, doesn’t review a comprehensive photo archive to create an accurate timeline, and doesn’t double-check his facts before speaking. He definitely doesn’t play a video recording of the game for you. Typically, he just launches into a tale about your glorious goal that won the big game. He throws up some images for you, so it’s kind of like a lecture or slideshow. Nice and useful, perhaps, but definitely not reliable.”

So how does someone make sense of a product experience, or understand someone’s memory? Here is a brief list to consider:

  1. Use surveys to answer more factual questions, include open ended questions.
  2. Provide a behavior based question, and ask them to explain their intent and reasoning
  3. Use technology to measure the physiologic changes of the individual to quantify emotional engagement
  4. Link observational or transactional behavior data to the individuals sharing feedback
  5. Use machine learning to build predictive models that can identify the most salient questions and emotions related to your desired outcomes

The considerations above are not going to be explained in great detail because each point can be elaborated on in its own post in the future. If you have questions or would like to add suggestions to the consideration list above, please reach out.