Designing for forgetting

Alastair Somerville
10 min readJan 8, 2018


I have for the last few years tried to publicly prototype the ideas I am interested in and then converted into workshops. Last year had Transcendence (actually that started in 2016), Cognitive Accessibility and Perception of information in colocated spaces.

This post is a start on ideas I am interested in this year.

Forgetting is the key issue.

I have written a tiny post on this before: On the axes of memorability.

Here’s a longer post that I will build on as I go along.

Helping users

Design has been trying to help people out by offering ways of making successful experiences easier to achieve (thru such useful books as Don’t Make Me Think) and making tasks easier to achieve over time and place (thru notifications, To Do list apps and more).

This is all good.


Attention Economy

The downside of these approaches and tools is they can be abused (deliberately or accidentally) to minimise human agency.

  • That frictionless buying experience that you end up regretting.
  • That listicle headline that you instantly retweet without reading the content.
  • Those opinions you keep hear being repeated that you always remember just around election times.

As a designer or product manager, making your product experience memorable is not necessarily good for the user

The ideas of Don’t Make Me Think and Help Me Remember need to be balanced with understanding and forgetting.

Understanding and Forgetting

How can we create friction to enable understanding?

How can we manage experiences to be forgotten?

Research and reading

I’ve had an interest in forgetful design for a while due to wayfinding work in museums and public spaces. Wayfinding needs to be impermanent. Remembering a route thru an airport is good at the moment of need but not something you want to remember forever.

It’s also interesting to look at memorability research in fonts. The ease of reading Helvetica has (in some research) been balanced with lower levels of memorability. Great font for wayfinding, not so much for academic literature.

Most of my current reading is in memory and endings.

There are many books on memory: most are about making things memorable or about enabling better personal memory. Few of them are interested in the positive aspects of forgetfulness.

Salience is an interesting point about memorability. Not all things are equally memorable, to a specific person or to a group of people. Things have to have some relevance to become memorable. There are many ways of playing with that: emotion can be a quick and dirty trick.

The only relevant book on endings is Joe Macleod’s Ends which is good for identifying the bias to design the start of experiences without considering the ends.

The key points at this moment

Events cannot be forgotten if they are always ongoing.

Digital keeps updating itself so what we did is never finished. The place we went is not the same place. The book we read is not the same book.

Things we did are endlessly open to review. The thing we decided not to buy is placed in front of us, again and again, on different sites by different companies.

We cannot forget because we are never allowed to forget the past.

Nothing stops, nothing ends, nothing can be forgotten.

If you have any experience of designing for understanding or design for forgetting, please let me know if there’s anything good I can share.

I will update this post over the year and, hopefully, create a workshop to share ideas and techniques.

Update 9th January 2018

Seeking analogies: the wave

Finding a way of communicating why I think there’s a problem means finding analogies. Here’s one I’m thinking about: waves crashing.

People like playing in and on the waves at a beach.

Waves surface, run along, crest and fall. Again and again. In ways that aren’t quite possible to understand in the moment.

Waves play well with the human desires for novelty, sensation, patterns, beginnings and ends. They are relaxing to watch and fun to play in. You can play with them whatever your age.

Designing experiences like waves is good. Anticipation, building excitement, a peak moment and then a crash down to a frothy ending. And repeat as long as you choose to be there.

However, that’s not what is being done.

I was watching a BBC documentary on Scottish Lochs this week and the waves breaking at the end of Loch Etive at Connel were noted as an exciting and difficult place to canoe. At one point however, a standing wave was created (as the loch sits at the edge of the sea and glen).

The standing wave is odd. A wave that doesn’t end.

This is what design too often does. As Joe Macleod notes in his book, starting and building experiences is what designers concentrate on as it is that part that has clear revenue and profits.

The problem is that building and maintaining standing waves leaves people unable to leave, to complete the journey. Without completion, there can be no end experience and so it’s impossible to even to have a choice to remember or forget.

This is also a demonstration of designing for the conscious mind and not the complete person. The conscious mind can surface (as noted by Damasio in The Self Comes To Mind) when needed.

However, it’s not meant to be active all the time. The unconscious is where the majority of our selves lie. If nothing ends, nothing can sink into the unconscious properly.

The standing wave is a trick. It plays to the expectation that a wave will end. That the experience will complete as expected. But it doesn’t. The conscious mind remains alert. The memories hang in working memory. Attention is held at that cusp of peak experience.

And that’s not good.

A memory test

One of the things I’ve been looking at is, obviously, memory theory. Ebbinghaus and Bartlett seem to be key early researchers. Oddly Ebbinghaus seems to have used a form of gibberish as his baseline material for testing memory recall.

I’ve been interested in phenomenology for a while and I can’t see how memory isn’t situated within contexts of people, place, purpose, etc. That’s the salience diagram shown above.

I’ve been wondering about how to test the edges of my forgetfulness. Remembering my early life is one approach (tho the natural passage of childhood amnesia does affect this).

I drew this diagram to try and map specific memories.

What I’m interested in is how certain factors are affecting memories but not necessarily the same pattern of factors. It’s not a personal preference pattern. It changes.

This may become a workshop exercise.

Here’s a test version.

That’s one of my few memories of visiting New York in 1973. The first time I was in the United States. It’s a clear memory. Yet all around it must be things I did and saw but have forgotten. Those are what I’m seeking to understand.

Update 12th January 2018

Additional pieces

I was drawing the original sketch on Artefact Cards yesterday. Mostly to see the gaps between the arrows.

  • The forgotten, understood
  • The understood, remembered
  • The remembered, unthought
  • The unthought, unremembered

In all of these there may or may not be actions. I’d assume the Blue areas have more probability of action, of use. It’s generally in the top left quadrant that UX design operates.

Acting without memory

However, that’s not quite true. In a paper that Cameron Tonkinwise sent me, there is a discussion of Akrasia. The Ancient Greek concept of forgetting to do good.

This is useful when considering frictionless purchasing systems (I think of airline ticketing at the moment). Sometime we forget so as to enable the purchase. We most often ignore the environmental damage when buying air tickets. Design helps us forget, in the moment, to be good.

This also links to ideas of design trying to not make us feel bad. Don’t make me think, don’t let me feel bad.

This was a sketch for Cesar Abueg, who first mentioned the “Don’t let me feel bad” point to me, that tries to add emotion.

The opposite side to Don’t let me feel bad is…what? I’m guessing Let me feel. A free choice to feel the emotion that you wish. Not the one the organisation hopes to restrict you to.

Update 23rd January 2018

A workshop comes into view

I have been looking at ways of mapping and framing memories lately and this has enabled a view on how to organise a workshop.

Falling thru the gaps

I did some usability work on loneliness and ageing a few years ago. It was for a large UK city’s public transport system. How could they help people stay mobile and social was the key issue. What this meant was talking about journeys never made.

That is quite hard. People mostly remember what they do, not what they don’t do. To talk of journeys not made (due to cost, or time, or lack of information) needs framing.

I used a sequence of discussions to talk of journeys made as they were essential and journeys made for fun in order to create the space of journeys not made. It was a process of cognitive alignment. Moving people thru memories and experiences to make the impossible spaces more visible.

It’s this process that seems helpful to any discussion of forgetting.

To talk of remembered events, to talk of solid memories and how we make them in order to then fragment those capacities to understand how we forget.

A workshop sequenced to fall backwards thru remembering to forgetting.

I’ll be offering this workshop to conferences to see if I can work with participants to create new tools and ways of working (which is why I run workshops really: to test my uncertainty with people).

You can download the workshop flyer here.

The full text is:




In an Attention Economy, understanding how we forget is as important as knowing how we remember. This workshop is about mapping how we all remember and forget. How do we structure exciting future design with elements made to be forgotten?

Making stunning experiences that users love means more than just how to design beautiful, accessible products and services. It means creating a whole structure of elements; some memorable, some not. It is easy to become obsessed with the design of the things users remember: those peak moments and endings that we know define great UX.

This workshop is about breaking down memorable experiences (the moments, the places, the people, the artefacts, the emotions) to then explore the experiences that hold them together but which we forget.

· We make so much unconscious to maintain clarity in what we want to do.

· We often forget to find novelty.

As designers, we need to understand how we forget to build memorable experiences. We need tools to explore and map how we remember and how we forget.

This workshop uses new frameworks and maps on our memories to first explore things we remember well, then the fragments of almost lost moments and finally the gaps, those forgotten times. Knowing how we ourselves remember and forget is a foundation for designing for others, for users, for customers.


1/2 day workshop for all kinds of participant. For professionals in physical and digital experience design and other stakeholders who want to understand how experiences are remembered in their customers’ lives.

This workshop has no major technical requirements and can be run for both large and small groups in most spaces.


Alastair Somerville is an experienced workshop designer and facilitator with clients globally.

He uses knowledge from accessibility projects and research to inform experiential, enjoyable workshops.

Update 2nd February 2018

Tools for memory

I noticed there was a sale on this week so it seemed a good time to make some workshop tools.

Building on the idea of understanding remembering to understand forgetting, I’m making some dice to help randomise people’s accessing of the fragments that enable memory.

Update 6th May 2018

Changing the workshop

I’ve got a Design For Forgetting workshop into a UX conference (I’ll update when they announce).

It’s only an hour so I need to change which part of Forgetting to discuss. The DIVE model is good but needs more context over a longer workshop.

Familiarity and Fragmentation

Discussing how to disrupt memory traces might seem a better thing to talk about and workshop.

How we can help forget some experiences so as to highlight good experiences.

There are many methods both in remembering and recalling but, in a 60 minute workshop, it can only be about a small group.

Familiarity and Fragmentation are techniques that use how long it takes to make memories.

The workshop will use an exercise for designers to think about how to play with memorability and forgetting within a user journey.

I’ll update when I get closer to the UX conference.



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX