Intentional nostalgia: a guide

Simple cookies, incredible delight.

A few years ago, a coworker brought in a box of cookies his grandmother had sent him that were exactly like ones my grandmother used to bake. The moment I opened the bag, saw and smelled them, I was transported back into my grandmother’s kitchen, to when I was a child and she baked them weekly. They were just as tasty as I remembered, and I was grateful not just for the cookie but for the happy memories it brought. When he brought me those same cookies again a few months later, they were just as tasty, but the nostalgic wave had subsided significantly. Nostalgia is a beautiful thing, but it’s a button that cannot be pushed too many times.   

Lately it seems that too many products have been trying to mobilize nostalgia-as-a-feature too often and as a blatant way to increase sharing and engagement. Many social and photo apps have been around for over a decade, during which they have gathered many special moments which are often fun to revisit. Yet, evoking those nostalgic moments doesn’t always work. Here are a few things I’ve noticed about what works well:

  1. Make sure the moment is good one. Not every moment in our past is a happy one and, even if we shared it before, and creating an intentionally nostalgic can seem forced. Even what users willingly shared years ago may be painful today, such as the death of a loved one or the end of a relationship. I’ve found the better nostalgic moments understand that an use some connection to the present to make assumptions about the past. For example, Google Photos deals with this really well with their “Then & Now” collage because it uses current information to bring up the past. Understanding that if I took a photo of Joe today, I’m probably OK with seeing Joe 8 years ago.

    One week on Facebook: memories, a friendversary and a month in review.

  2. Don’t overdo it. Google Photos surfaces nice moments in their “Rediscover this day” collages, but when I receive such reminders every day, it gets old. Even though I love seeing my family members change throughout the years, that’s a button that can’t be pushed that often. Likewise for Facebook, where this week I got reminders of my Memories on Facebook, of a post I shared two years ago, my October Memories, and a Friendversary, which really has no meaning for me because we became friends long before.

    Nostalgic for a salad?

  3. A reminder of a significant moment. This requires some knowledge of what makes a moment special, but offhand I’d include important people during special occasions like birthdays, weddings, first days of school, and holidays. I’m in awe of Google Photo’s ability to recognize members of my extended family across time, and would like them to use that to generate reminders. I’m a bit confused by why they would choose to send me a photo of a salad from three years ago.
  4. Going beyond reminders and notifications and include flashbacks as part of the user experience, where users can be part of a process that unobtrusively offers nostalgic moments that they choose to explore. One great example of this approach is how photobook/card/calendar creators enjoy the process because it involves choosing photos from events that gave them joy in the past. Spotify and other music apps do this as well when offering playlists of specific decades, and focused on themes from those decades. Netflix might do this better by offering movies and TV shows by decades prompting a weekend full of all your teen flicks.

Bottom line I think that yes, products can harness nostalgia and the goodwill it generates, but please, do so tastefully and sparingly. When the user feels, as I sometimes do, that it’s all done to manipulate them into social action, it generates impatience and ire more than goodwill. Less is more.

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