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Nostalgia in UX Design
Trends, Benefits, and Ethical Considerations
A Brief Dive into Nostalgia’s Evolution
In 1688, Swiss physician Johannes Hofer coined the term “nostalgia,” blending the Greek words nostos (homecoming) and algos (pain). It originally referred to the profound homesickness experienced by soldiers far from their homeland. But this sentiment has evolved over centuries. From being seen as a medical ailment to a personality flaw, and eventually, with the Romantic movement, a cultural touchstone – nostalgia has experienced an identity shift. In 2023 nostalgia is more relevant than ever.
Today's culture, especially in marketing and design, often invokes nostalgia as a tool to capture hearts and emotions. From the Hollywood revivals of favourites like 'Transformers' and 'Ghostbusters' to series such as 'Stranger Things' which pay homage to past decades to the latest blockbuster “Barbie”, it’s evident that nostalgia holds a special place in our hearts… but what gives nostalgia its emotional pull?
Understanding the Pull of Nostalgia
At its core, nostalgia offers a refuge. Psychologists suggest that it provides psychological comfort, especially when the present feels overwhelming or when a threat is present. Reflecting on happier times can be a balm in periods of distress. It’s no wonder that nostalgia flourishes in societies after wars and times of social dislocation — our current post-pandemic, austerity times are an example of this. Thinking about a less turbulent past makes people feel safer and remember of better times.
A number of studies have found that nostalgia increases general well-being by increasing optimism, inspiration, and making people feel more youthful and optimistic about their health. Research also suggests that recalling the good old days, or feeling nostalgic, adds meaning to our lives. This "meaning" in this context is about feeling that life is predictable, goal-driven, and valuable. This connection likely stems from "self-continuity," where we link our past and present selves. By reflecting on significant memories, we trace our life's journey and understand its importance.
“Nostalgia has existential gravitas: It infuses life with meaning.”
van Tilburg et al., 2018
Furthermore, nostalgia can have a social function; shared nostalgia strengthens community ties. Remembering iconic tunes or classic TV shows can foster a sense of belonging, connecting us with others who share these memories (Loveland et al., 2010).
From a cognitive perspective, our brains are wired to engage deeply with nostalgic moments. Whether it's environmental cues prompting vivid memories or the significance of memories formed during our youth, known as the reminiscence bump, nostalgia is both an emotional and cognitive experience (Koppel & Berntsen, 2015).
With such a profound impact, it's no wonder businesses are tapping into nostalgia. But how can we as UX professionals effectively (and responsibly) weave nostalgia into design?
Leveraging Nostalgia in UX
Embracing nostalgia in UX is more than just a retro overlay. It’s about connecting with users at a deeper, emotional level. However, to do it right, we should consider the following:
User-Centric Nostalgia: Understand your audience. Research has shown that different generations connect with different cultural markers. For example, while baby boomers might resonate with references from the 60s-80s, millennials connect more with the 90s. User research can help you better understand your users and how you can use nostalgia to make a connection with them.
Innovative, Not Imitative: Going retro is fine, but copying past styles without a fresh twist might come off as uninspired. The goal is to evoke the feelings of the past while fitting seamlessly into today’s digital landscape.
Coherence is Key: Any nostalgic element should blend seamlessly with the core functionality of the product or service. For instance, adding retro design elements that don’t align with the product's functionality might confuse users.
Inclusivity in Design: While aiming for retro aesthetics, ensure your design remains accessible to all users. For instance, while vintage colour schemes can evoke nostalgia, they shouldn't compromise visual clarity.
Nostalgia as a Dark Pattern?
Nostalgia, while comforting, can be a seductive trap in UX design, especially when it's applied without critical reflection. Drawing parallels with dark patterns, which are deliberately crafted to mislead users, nostalgia's misuse can sway users in unintended directions. Let's unpack this further:
It can cloud decision making: Strong nostalgic emotions can serve as powerful drivers of our actions. Research has shown that emotion heavily influences decision-making processes. When we experience strong emotions like nostalgia, our rational decision-making can be skewed. Nostalgia tends to paint the past in a positive light, which could result in users acting impulsively or overlooking design flaws.
It can manipulate users into spending money: Nostalgia can influence our valuation of money, making users more willing to spend or donate. Research suggests that feeling nostalgic decreases the desire for money, making individuals more likely to pay more for products or services. This can potentially lead users to make impulsive decisions, parting with more money than they might under a different emotional state(Lasaleta el al., 2014).
Limit Innovation: Over-reliance on familiar concepts can sometimes inhibit creativity and the willingness to innovate. If we are constantly leaning into nostalgia, we might not be as open to exploring new design paradigm and innovate.
Selective Memory: Loveland et al. (2010) discussed how nostalgia tends to filter our memories, highlighting positive experiences while downplaying negative ones. This selective remembrance in design can offer a distorted view, potentially neglecting certain user groups or glossing over past societal issues. It’s similar to looking at the past with rose-tinted glasses, forgetting that those times weren't perfect or inclusive for everyone.
Nostalgia is powerful, but it should be used responsibly. Exploiting memories just for metrics isn't just unethical – it could also alienate users. As designers, prioritising genuine user connection over fleeting engagement metrics is crucial.
When used thoughtfully, nostalgia can enhance UX by tapping into shared cultural memories and emotions. As we move forward, the key lies in balancing respect for the past with the needs and ethical considerations of the present and future.