Memory is intriguing. Since the start of mankind, human beings have been dedicating their efforts to preserving things a bit longer. With this pursuit have they invented symbols, languages, paper, books, photographs, and eventually in recent decades, digital technology. I’m deeply fascinated by how people’s various attempts to create, collect, preserve, and treasure their memories have changed with the constantly evolving environment brought by the advancement of technology. I’m curious about how the meanings and values of memories have changed or dropped with the digitalization of memory and how design and technology can help protect and increase them. In the research domain of memory, I have investigated the “memory processes” of the creation, collection, preservation, and treasuring of memory and people’s intentional and unintentional habits, methods, practices, and behaviors in these memory processes.
My thesis focuses on people’s behaviors and attitudes towards memory in a digital context. After I had defined my research topic and direction I started a series of academic and creative inquiries. I have conducted surveys, interviews with potential users as well as experts in the community of practice, co-design workshops, cultural probes, and prototyping with user testings. In my surveys and interviews about memories, I noticed that people usually take dozens to hundreds of photos during an event that they want to keep the memory of while their treatment of these photos or the lack of such fails to suggest the desired intention of them. What people usually do is simply uploading all the photos to a cloud storage and rarely looking back on them. The means and meanings of memory have changed significantly in digital era. The popularization of phone cameras has made “documenting the moment” much easier while at the same time such action less momentous.
How are memories created, collected, preserved, and treasured? What are people’s intentional and unintentional habits, methods, practices, and behaviors in these processes? How have the meaning and value of memories changed with the digitalization of memory and how can design and technology increase the value of memories in a digital era? These are the central questions that have shaped my research.
There are a few precedents in this area. “Between” is a mobile app for couples to document their moments of love. It has functions like sharing calendars, leaving messages, collaborating on albums, and noting anniversaries. “The Life Writer” is a life story or biography writing service. This service with an app automates the life story memoir book writing process and makes memoir writing easy, affordable, and available to everyone. Another famous precedent is Google Photos, an app that can intelligently organize photos into different categories, people, and events. It has provided ways for people to organize their digital memories.
The community of practice related to digital memory and memory digitalization includes Steve Mann, Vannevar Bush, Chris Anderson, Phillip Heidkamp, Gordon Bell, Lasse Scherffig, and Xiaojun Zhan. I interviewed three people from this circle to get a more comprehensive perspective on my thesis topic. They are Philipp Heidkamp, a professor and interface designer, Dr. Lasse Scherffig, a professor, cognitive scientist, and interaction designer, and Xiaojun Zhan, a professor, writer, and world traveler with valuable life experience. In these semi-structured interviews, I first stated my research domain and questions, asked their professional opinions from their own fields of practice, and sought suggestions on my creative design research. Professor Heidkamp, as an interface designer, emphasized that my memory project, if in the form of interactive interfaces, needs to allow users to “set triggers” that they can refer back in the future, creating a strong experience in order to create a strong piece of memory because “the way to capture memory is through perceiving and remembering being in the situation.” From Dr. Scherffig as a cognitive scientist, I gained plenty of insights on the neuroscientific concepts of short-term vs. long-term memory, semantic vs. episodic memory, implicit vs. explicit memory, analog vs. digital memory, and formed vs. retrieved memory. Knowing these scientific concepts related to memory, I can form a solid theoretical foundation as the base for my project to build on. In the interview with Professor Zhan, his rich and valuable life experience provided many inspirations on how this thesis project could evolve and what features could be included. As a writer and world traveler, he likes to document his observations and feelings when he is involved in an interesting experience or a major event. His practice, as he expressed, has the goal of saving precious moments for future recollection, the benefit of which becomes ever more obvious and significant especially when the age increases. Memory needs a medium and for Professor Zhan, writing is his way.
Based on the findings from previous research, I want to investigate how memories are organized/presented naturally and how people want them to be organized/presented ideally. From earlier research, it is made more and more clear that the way people keep memories in their minds (unprocessed memory) is quite different from the way people want to document and preserve them (processed memory). The former is more in chaos while people hope the latter to be more organized. Unprocessed memory corresponds to the memory processes (studied and demonstrated in previous prototypes) of creation and collection and processed memory preservation and treasuring.
In order to find out how people’s memories naturally are and how they want them to be, I arranged workshops with some potential users. First, I asked them to send me their “documentation” of a recent event they want to keep the memory of. In response, most of them came up with their memories of traveling, camping, family gatherings, and friends’ hanging-outs and sent me photos and diary-like texts. Then I printed out their documentations and invited them to participate in this workshop individually. In the workshop, after presenting their printed-out memory documentations, I asked the participants to arrange them in a way that could reflect how they were presented in their minds. After that, I asked the participants to rearrange them in the way they want them to be in order to preserve the memory as long as possible, which, almost all test participants expressed, was “definitely” what they wanted for precious memory.
As the result, the transition from the first arrangement of memory documentation materials to the second is a process from chaos to orders. The behaviors from participants include laying out, lining up, ordering and ranking, grouping and clustering, connecting related materials such as pictures and their corresponding text entries, jotting, annotating, drawing and doodling, etc. Participants’ intention to organize them also reflects the chronological and episodic nature of memories, as discovered in the previous academic research on the neuroscience and psychology of human memory, when they tried to arrange memory materials into sub-event clusters and organize them in the order of time.
Besides investigating how memories are formed and presented, I want to continue to study how they are kept and retrieved as I have done in previous prototypes and research. Thus, in addition to workshops, I also assigned Cultural Probes as a Co-Design method to test participants. The Cultural Probes prompt asks the participants to document what triggers their memory for one day, taking pictures or videos with a camera for visual and acoustic objects and writing down or doodling in a notebook for abstract and intangible elements. In order to spark design opportunities, follow-up interviews were conducted to find out what triggers memory, how people remember past events, what information memories include in their attempt to recall, and what methods they wish they had to ensure memory’s longevity.
As the outcome, I found out that five senses play heterogeneous roles in people’s memories and every person has their own style of portioning sensory memory information. Regardlessly, visual memory is a dominant part with the acknowledgement of significant participation from the other four senses as well. According to test participants, memories are often triggered by revisiting the same places, encountering objects formally similar to ones seen in the past, or associating sensory information at the moment with a specific feeling from a former memorable experience. They wished they could experience the moment while also documenting it so they could look it back later and share it with others. However, they also implied that some objects were easy to capture figuratively but some others like sunshine, cool breeze, and temperature which made them comfortable or delightful were difficult to preserve clearly nor share easily.