How the Deja-Vu Effect Influences User Experience?

When people experience something new but have a feeling that they have experienced it before, this psychological phenomenon is called déjà vu. It closely resembles memory recall, where individuals start recognizing things around them and create a sense of familiarity with the space or the experience.

Individuals familiarize themselves with a particular situation using memory as a source to find clues within the present context. Experiencing such a situation can evoke various emotions and reactions, as they feel at ease with something familiar to them.

For instance, opening the Bolt app, which has a similar look to the Uber app, may allow an individual who has never used Bolt before to recognize its layout, patterns, and design, as it closely resembles other taxi apps. Consequently, they can easily navigate through the app, connecting the dots and finding familiarity.

This deliberate design tactic used by designers is called "pattern duplicity" or in simpler term, "familiarity". The concept involves using similar designs for an app, enabling users to experience the product without having to learn new patterns and triggering a sense of déjà vu.

Déjà Vu as a Psychological Phenomenon

Déjà vu is an expression that signifies a feeling of having already seen or experienced something. According to Dr. Amy Reichelt, a Senior Research Associate at UNSW:

"Déjà vu, from a psychological perspective, is thought to be caused by a memory mismatch that leads us to feel that we have already experienced an event when we know the event is completely new."

Our brains process sensory information from previous experiences and store new experiences and information. Thus, during a déjà vu event, different memory systems help us recognize, feel familiarity, and re-experience with ease and comfort, whether it's a similar situation, product, or event we've encountered before. Anne Cleary, a déjà vu researcher and psychology professor at Colorado State University, states that:

"Déjà vu can happen in response to an event that resembles something you've experienced but don't remember."

In simpler terms, déjà vu occurs when our memory of a place, situation, person, or act is similar to something we've previously experienced.

How to Design Déjà Vu — The Model & Schema

The model for the déjà vu phenomenon can be designed to influence decision-making, emotions, actions, or the overall experience. Therefore, understanding how the phenomenon works and its impact on emotions through appraisal dimensions is crucial. Emotions are responses or reactions to a situation, where the mind and body play important roles, as emotions are directly linked to cognitive processes and behavior.

When exposed to a familiar event, situation, act, or experience within a design context, an individual's emotions and reactions can be modified or altered based on the user's needs and preferences. Designing emotional appraisal models help us understand how a situation is perceived and what modifications are needed in the interpretation of that situation. These models effectively analyze the underlying appraisals and target various dimensions of emotions. Additionally, they provide insights into how individuals unfold their emotions in an experience.

As previously explained, déjà vu in design functions as a pattern of duplicity, recreating existing situations for better user experience or creating a sense of familiarity with a product the user may have encountered before. This affects the user's behavior and emotions. For example:

Schematic view of the appraisal theory model
Schematic view of the appraisal theory model

Within the aforementioned models, it is highly likely that when an individual encounters the Bolt app for the first time, they may struggle and take time to recognize the pattern, design, and layout compared to other taxi apps. The colors used, icons, and logo might not be recognizable at first glance, creating an impression that navigation is difficult. This can lead to panic, stress, or tension, preventing the person from reaching their destination. However, at this point, the person's brain begins to form a memory based on limited information. As a result, the brain falsely perceives the situation as familiar, leading to recognition and forming connections with the app in comparison to other existing taxi apps.

In this scenario, the local app needs to have a standardized look in terms of the provided information and the language used, similar to the more commonly used transport apps globally. This ensures convenience for users to use the app and navigate it effectively.

Alternatively, the application may have a different interface, but the colors and icons resemble those of existing and commonly used apps. This also provides comfort to the user as they are exposed to familiar colors and icons, making it easier for them to recognize and make decisions.

What are the unintended consequences of such interventions?

  1. Copying someone else's app designs can lead to copyright infringement and potential lawsuits;
  2. Making the app highly usable and accessible may intensify competition with local taxi service industries, causing economic repercussions.

To resolve these unintended consequences, taxi app companies can work closely with local taxi services to empower them and ensure they do not go out of business.

How to Test an Intervention?

Taxi app companies can conduct surveys or questionnaires among their users. These surveys can inquire about the colors that users find most familiar when using a transport app, the preferred layout, and whether the app is easy to use and resembles existing transport apps. Furthermore, the company can gather feedback on which icons users resonate with most when it comes to transport or taxi apps.

Implementing the mentioned changes provides users with a better understanding of the app's usability and enhances their overall user experience while interacting with it.


This post was published by Azeem Hamid. Azeem is a Tallinn-based design researcher who specializes in human-centered and user-experience design. Please show your love and support by sharing this post.