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Anecdote Circles & Memory Biases

Anecdote circles are an alternative to focus groups, where a group of people gather to generate and collect
anecdotes about some issue or topic. The anecdotes are compiled and analyzed at a later time to look for narrative themes (or patterns). While focus groups tend to be about discovering what a company wants to know, anecdote circles are about discovering what a group of people think and feel about something through ancedotal storytelling.
People Sitting in an Anecdote Cirlce

Methods Used in Anecdote Circles

You can use a variety of different method in anecdote circles to get the group to share their stories. As you read about these methods, think about how you might use them in your own research:

Best & Worst Moments:
You ask the group to think about the best moments they have had using a particular product or service. Encourage the participants to share stories, listen to other people’s stories, and add to existing stories when the remember something new. After completing the best moments, ask the group to do the same exercise for their worst moments.
Ditting, or One-Upping Someone:
After going through the Best & Worst Moments exercise, you might want to mention to the group about ditting. Ditting occurs naturally and spontaneously in casual conversations. You may have seen a movie where some soldiers go ditting each other, as they compare old war wounds. Each soldier’s wound is progressively worse than the previous one. The goal is ditting is to get see what underlying themes might emerge.
Archetype Storytelling:
In this method, you have the people in the group play a specific character to get them to see a different viewpoint. If you have already developed user personas, you can let each person choose a persona and go through a situation where they were proud or frustrated. You can have some archetypes, or personas, work together to solve a problem. As this method ends, ask each person if they have encountered similar feelings or situations. See what anecdotes get shared, which might uncover hidden feelings of your audience.
Alternative Histories:
In this method, you want the participants to actively change the plot of their anecdotes. For example, Stephen Anderson has an exercise where he asks a workshop audience to “Write a Company’s Obituary” from five years in the future. The goal of alternate history exercises is to determine critical success factors from the turning points in the alternate histories.

I have seen and participated in Anecdote Circle meetings. They are fun, interactive, and engaging. I am struck out how these methods really play off human biases. It might be the entire purpose of these games, too.

Best & Worst Moments Game and the Peak-End Effect

The bias of Peak-End Effect occurs when people seem to perceive not the sum of an experience but the average of how it was at its peak (pleasant or unpleasant) and how something ended (pleasant or unpleasant). For example, you go to a shopping aggregator like Kayak, where you can shop on any different airline sites at one time. You must go to another site to actually book your trip. Shopping is pleasant at Kayak, but the booking ends on another site where the experience is poor. The customer has a bias now because of the peak-end effect. The Best & Worst Game in Anecdote Circles seems to play off Peak-End Effect bias.

Ditting and the Humor Effect

The bias of Humor Effect occurs because people recall humorous items more easily than non-humorous ones. Scientists believe that humor requires a little more cognitive processing because you need to understand the joke. Plus, you have an emotional response tied to your physical laughter. Ditting is about one-upping another person’s story, usually the ditting gets humorous quickly (sometimes, it is very dark). You do encounter the Humor Effect with ditting.

Archetype Storytelling and the Halo Effect

The halo effect is a bias where the perception of one trait in a person (or product) influences your perception of another trait in that person (or product). With people, the Halo Effect might be judging people with glasses as being smarter or good looking people are more successful. In products, the color white equates to clean. With archetype storytelling, the archetype character traits can be exaggerated where you can encounter the Halo effect in positive and negative ways.

Alternate Histories and Hindsight Bias

The bias of Hind-sight (also called the “I Knew It All Along” bias) occurs when you see past events as being predictable. The Alternate Histories exercise does actively have someone plot out a different timeline. People will draw from their own experiences a set of images that best support their own plot. Do they determine the potential success factors, their own biases, or both in the Alternate History exercises? How do you determine a success factor or a bias?


Anecdote circles are alternatives to focus groups. I see them filled with methods that play off each person’s individual biases, which might actually be the purpose of these games. You want to get people talking in these sessions. You want them to open up. Their biases will naturally emerge.

Is there a place for Anecdote Circles in your design research?

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