January 27, 2014

Nostalgia: A Product Designer's Secret Weapon

Remember pogs?

Remember Tubthumping?

Remember Nickelodeon GUTS?

Now pause…

How do you feel right now? Did reading those words stimulate any emotional reaction? Did it bring back memories? Excite you? Make you smile?

Nostalgia is powerful. Simply mentioning the names of childhood toys, old TV shows, classic video games, and other pastime activities often instigate an emotional response, reminiscence. But why? Why is nostalgia so compelling and how can product creators use this to build more engaging products?

The Influence of Nostalgia

The term nostalgia was coined by 17th century physician, Johannes Hofer, based off the Greek words nostos (return) and algos (pain). He prescribed nostalgia as a mental illness, attributing it to Swiss soldiers’ symptoms of anxiety, homesickness, insomnia, and anorexia. Hofer believed “continuous vibration of animal spirits through those fibers of the middle brain in which impressed traces of ideas of the Fatherland still cling,” was the cause of these ailments.

Since then, we’ve acquired a better understanding of nostalgia, now defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.” Nostalgia generally instills positive emotions of happiness, social connectedness, confidence, and optimism of the future. When feeling down, people seek nostalgia to raise their spirits. Dr. Clay Routledge, a Professor of Psychology at North Dakota State University, posits that “nostalgia increases positive mood, perceptions of meaning, and a sense of connectedness to others. Thus, people may naturally turn to nostalgia if positive mood is threatened, a sense of meaning in life is undermined, or feelings of social connectedness are compromised.”

Negative emotions are powerful triggers, influencing our behavior. Feelings of loneliness, boredom, or insignificance prompt people to browse their Facebook feed, search for a match on OkCupid, or send a photo to a friend on Snapchat. People turn to these services, often subconsciously, to improve their mood. In one study Dr. Routledge examined the effects of music-induced nostalgia, playing popular songs and providing lyrics to participants. Those exposed to the music were more likely to report that they felt “loved” and that “life is worth living” than a control group.

Routledge further explains, “[Nostalgia] is a psychological resource that people employ to counter negative emotions and feelings of vulnerability. Nostalgia allows people to use experiences from the past to help cope with challenges in the present.” Smart product designers and marketers recognize the influence of nostalgia, integrating it into apps and services we use every day. Here are a few products that use nostalgia to spark engagement and build compelling experiences.


Nostalgia is a core component of Timehop’s design. Each day the service revives past status updates and photos shared exactly one or more years ago. Instantly, memories resurface as these shared moments encourage people reminisce with friends and family.

The other day Timehop resurfaced this photo:

This was from an incredibly fun 80’s KOFY TV Dance Party, two years ago. Instantly, I shared this with my friends to reminisce.


Heyday uses a similar approach, reminding users of the past. But it adds another dimension: location. Last month when I visited my hometown, I received a delightful push notification from Heyday, prompting me to “Look back at your photos shared in Eugene, OR.”

Using the location data stored within the photo, Heyday generates a historical map of one’s travels to surface delightful, contextual memories from the thousands of pictures stored on my iPhone.

A pic from last August near Robert Mondavi Winery (via @heyday) pic.twitter.com/XDoVflxL3l

— Ryan Hoover (@rrhoover) August 18, 2013

Facebook Year in Review

Facebook amused the world toward the end of 2012 with a special year in review, surfacing the 20 most popular posts in one’s timeline. People enjoyed the digital scrapbook, reviewing and sharing memories of the past year. Facebook repeated the successful campaign again at the end of 2013.

Visit your 2013 year in review and observe your emotions and behaviors. Does it make you smile? Are you compelled to comment on these memories? This nostalgic look-back also helps communicate the value of Facebook as a destination to store and relive memories the following year.


As Dr. Routledge’s research shows, music has remarkable nostalgia-inducing powers. Mindie, a mobile app to watch and create 7-second music videos, leverages this potent power to quickly deliver an aha! moment, hooking users on day one. Browse the feed of user-created videos to listen to the classics or create your own, selecting your favorite song from yesteryear, surfacing memories and nostalgia.


Polar, a mobile app of visual polls, covers a wide range of topics from current day politics to modern memes. But many of its most engaging polls, as found in its feed of top submissions, are based on old pop culture references and childhood activities like:


Boya, a new product from the folks at Monkey Inferno, thrives off of nostalgia. After registering any account, users are prompted to describe themselves, entering things they’ve done.

These shared experiences ignite conversation as community members ask users about their experiences, further digging into the archives of the brain.

Foursquare Timemachine

In the summer of 2013, Foursquare Timemachine, hit the internet, igniting a wave of attention in the press and social media.

People loved the data-rich, interactive map of their check-in history. My memories moving from Portland to San Francisco was most notable for me, marking a new chapter in my life. Others reminisced of past vacations as the map traveled across the world.


Glimpse, a dating app that uses Instagram photos to express oneself, creatively uses nostalgia in its on-boarding process. When first signing up, it prompts users to login with Instagram and select nine photos to express one’s personality.

Browsing years of beautiful photos from the past is delightful and although it’s not core to the product, the experience is fun and engages users when they’re most susceptible to churn, before they’ve recognized the value of the app.

Be it a one-time marketing tactic like Foursquare’s Time Machine or core part of the product design like Timehop, nostalgia is a powerful tool to re-engage users and create compelling experiences. Consider how you can use nostalgia to:

  • Promote your product and provide interesting content people want to share
  • Deliver an aha! moment on day one, encouraging users to return
  • Build sustainable value and delightful experiences by making people feel good

To learn more about product design and influencing user behavior, check out Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and subscribe to receive the first chapter for free.

This essay was originally published on Pando.

More Writing by Ryan