Axiom: All Experiences End
Physical products have various life durations ranging from a few minutes (e.g. food) to thousands of years (e.g. buildings). Physical goods can outlive their owners (hence, there is the institution of inheritance). However, services and experiences end rather quickly relative to the clients’ life expectancy. All experiences end.
After an experience ends, it transforms into a memory.
The lay (naïve?) view on human memory is that people record facts and feelings in a similar way a video-camera records images and sounds. Years of research in psychology teach us that human memory is not only selective (i.e. we forget), but also reconstructive. Simply put, when we remember something we retrieve from memory bits and pieces of information and we use our imagination to fill in the blanks in such a way that the story is coherent.
A special case of memory inaccuracy or distortion is the memory of experiences.
Living an experience is very different than remembering an experience
For example, there is a considerable difference between you being on holiday in Spain and you remembering your holiday in Spain.
In his famous book “Thinking Fast and Slow”, Daniel Kahneman says that we have two “selves”: (1) the “Experiencing Self” – the one that actually lives the experience in the present and (2) the “Remembering Self” – the one that remembers the experiences lived by the “Experiencing Self”.
Each of these two selves has its own evaluation of an experience and the two evaluations differ considerably.
The evaluation of the “Experiencing Self” is quite straightforward. We know how we feel and what we feel in every moment. For example, if you like what you are reading now, you feel good, you are happy and so on. We know that we feel pleasure when we experience something pleasurable. Similarly, we know that we feel pain when we feel pain.
The evaluation of the “Remembering Self” is quite different from the one of the “Experiencing Self”. If the two selves (experiencing and remembering) would be the same, then the memory of an experience would be the average of all instances of evaluations made at every point in time during the experience.
Imagine that you go on a weekend trip and spend at the destination about twenty-four hours. You decide to evaluate your experience every fifteen minutes. This means that you will have ninety-six instances of evaluations made by your “Experiencing Self”.
If the experiencing and remembering selves would be one and the same, then your overall evaluation of your weekend trip experience would be the average of the ninety-six evaluations made every fifteen minutes during the actual experience.
Because the two “selves” are different, what the “remembering self” thinks about your “weekend trip” experience is different from the average of the ninety-six evaluations your “experiencing self” made.
This difference between the actual experience and the memory of the experience is characterized by the “Peak-End Rule” and its implications.
The Peak-End Rule
The “Peak-End Rule” (Redelmeier, Katz, Kahneman, 2003) says that the memory of an experience is influenced only by the “peak” (maximum point) and “end” moments of the actual experience. Except for the maximum pleasure (or pain) and the pleasure (or pain) felt at the end of the experience, the retrospective overall evaluation of the experience will ignore all the other instances actually experienced.
For example, if one month after you went on holiday in Spain, your friends ask “how was your trip?”, your “Remembering self” will make a retrospective evaluation of the actual experience. The retrospective evaluation is determined by the “peak” of your experience, say visiting Sagrada Família (a monumental cathedral in Barcelona), and by the last thing you have experienced in Spain, say the superb meal that you had on the last night before leaving Spain.
Duration neglect is an implication of the “Peak-End Rule” and means that how we remember (i.e. the memory of) an experience is not influenced by the duration of the actual experience.
For example, when you are on vacation (living the experience) it matters whether you spend seven or ten days in Spain. However, for your memory of the experience, it makes no difference how many days you spent in Spain, provided that the “peak” and the “end” of the experience remain the same regardless of the number of days spent under the Iberic Sun.
In-depth Explanation of the “Peak-End Rule” (Geeks only, feel free to skip to next subtitle)
The "Peak-End Rule" was coined in a very famous study by Redelmeier, Katz, and Kahneman in which the researchers investigated the difference between experience and memory of a painful experience (colonoscopy done without anesthesia). One group of patients had a brief procedure, whereas the other group had a slightly longer one. The short procedure ended with a high discomfort (pain) for the patient, while the longer procedure ended with a lower discomfort (but still painful).
The actual experience was better (less bad) for the patients who received the brief procedure compared to the experience of the ones who received the long procedure in the sense that the total amount of experienced pain was smaller. However, when later asked to evaluate their experience in retrospect the ones that received the longer procedure (with more experienced pain) rated their experience less bad than the ones who received the short procedure (with less experienced pain).
This is a very powerful illustration of both the peak-end rule and the duration neglect. People who have had less pain in total (short procedure), but with a very painful ending of experience remembered their experience as worse than people who have had more pain in total (long procedure), but with a less painful ending of the experience.
Retrospective evaluations of our experiences are based on the peak of the experience (both groups of patients had the same peak of pain) and on the end of the experience which was different for the two groups. Moreover, the duration of the experience was ignored in the sense that people who have had actually longer painful experiences which ended with a less bad experience remembered their experience as being better (less bad) than the people who had suffered less actual pain.
The “Peak-End Rule” was reconfirmed more recently in another medical setting. A team of researchers, led by Eran Chajut, investigated both the experiences and the memories of experiences (two days and two months after) of women giving birth.
Their conclusion: “[T]he memory of the pain involved in labor was biased toward the average of the peak pain and the end pain, whereas the duration of the delivery had a relatively negligible effect on the recollected intensity of pain.”
Practical Implications of the Peak-End Rule in Experience (Service) Design
Throughout the years I came across several interpretations/ applications of the “Peak-End Rule” in service or customer experience design. Some are naïve, others are correct.
“Save the Best for Last”. Not!
The first naïve interpretation is the application of the Peak-End Rule is the analogy with the saying “Save the best for last”.
By its very name, the “Peak-End Rule” implies that both the “peak” and the “end” moments of an experience are defining in the formation of the memory of an experience. Nobody said that the “end” should be the “peak”. Simply put, the end doesn’t (shouldn’t?) have to be the best moment (“peak”) of an experience.
What the “Peak-End Rule” says is that the “end” needs to be a positive experience. Sure, experience designers can try to maximize the enjoyability of the end-moment of an experience, but it doesn’t need to be mesmerizing.
The “Peak-End Rule” refers to the “remembering-self” not the “experiencing self”.
The second naïve interpretation of the “Peak-End Rule” is that improving the ending of an experience maximizes the enjoyability of the experience. This is an utter misinterpretation of research findings. The “Peak-End Rule” refers to how people remember (the memory of) an experience, not to the actual experience.
Sure, this might sound like “semantics”, but it actually makes a big difference in practice. If an experience designer is aiming to maximize the enjoyability of the actual experience, then she can give little (though, not exactly no) attention to the ending of an experience. In fact, if the goal is to increase the enjoyability of the experience, the experience designer should focus on creating delight in each and every moment of the experience.
Using the “Peak-End Rule” implies that the experience designer cares about the memory the customers form about the experience. The “Peak-End Rule” targets the “remembering-self” not the “experiencing self” and it is the former who makes decisions to repeat the purchase.
Focus on the “end” because, most often, you can’t control the “peak”
Much talk about using the “Peak-End Rule” in service (experience) design is, correctly, focusing on the “end” of an experience. In most cases, it is very difficult for the service provider to control the “peak” of an experience. For example, the hotel you are staying in Barcelona can’t control the “peak” of your visit to the city, say visiting Sagrada Familia (a jaw-dropping cathedral).
Moreover, the “peak” of an experience is rather subjective. For example, in Barcelona, visiting Sagrada Familia will be the “peak” for people fascinated by architecture, while for people fascinated by football (soccer) the “peak” will be visiting Camp Nou – F.C. Barcelona’s stadium.
“Closing the door” | what exactly is the “end” of an experience?
For experience designers, it is preferable to focus on improving the “end”, rather than the “peak” of an experience in order to positively influence the memory clients form about the experience (service). And this truth begs the question: “what exactly is the “end” of an experience?
Coming from a background in behavioral science which says that almost everything about human behavior is contextual, I advocate for experience designers to take a broader perspective on what the customers’ experience is. Simply put, in my view, what experience designers design is a (small?) piece of a much broader experience. For example, the accommodation (hotel?) service in Barcelona is only a piece of the customers’ experience in visiting the city of Barcelona, Spain or even Europe.
Taking this broader perspective on customer experience, what might seem like the end is not the end. For example, the hotel in Barcelona might see the check-out at the end of the customer’s experience with the business (service) and try to improve it. However, the tourist’s experience with visiting Barcelona (Spain, Europe?) doesn’t end at the hotel checkout. The tourist needs to get to the airport, go through customs, security checks etc. and fly to a destination that might or not be home.
Each service provider has a very limited or no control over how the next step in the broader customer journey (experience) goes. For example, the hotel service can help the tourists find an honest and decent taxi service provider to get them to the airport in decent conditions and without overcharging. But, the hotel has no control over how the airport security check goes and how (un)friendly the security staff is.
For experience designers, there are three learnings that arise from the “Peak-End Rule” and taking a broader perspective on customer experience.
First, acknowledge the next step in the customer’s journey (broader experience). For the service provider, it might seem that the customer experience ends when the interaction between the customer and the business ends, but this isn’t exactly so. The customer experience goes beyond the interaction with a certain service provider.
Second, if possible, help the client in the next step of her journey. In the case of a hotel, at (after) checkout, the client might need a taxi to get to the airport. The hotel should help the client find a reliable taxi service to accomplish her next step in the broader journey.
Third, “Close the door”. The famous baseball player Yogi Berra has a well-known quote: “It ain't over till it's over.” Despite being an utter tautology, the quote has some wisdom in it. If experience designers take inspiration from both the “peak-end rule” and the broader perspective on customer experience, then the experience needs to end at some point.
Simply put, experience designers need to incorporate in the design a moment (pseudo-ritual) that marks the end of the experience. For example, the hotel can call a taxi for the departing client and mark the end of the experience by thanking the customers for staying at the hotel and wishing them a good trip further. Of course, this is common courtesy, but it also marks an end of the customers’ experience with the hotel.