We tend to prefer things that are easy rather than difficult. Likewise, products and services can benefit from being easy to perceive.
Jun 2016   |   THEORIES
We often prefer things that are easy rather than difficult. Easiness can elicit a feeling of accomplishment and control. One aspect of easiness is referred to as cognitive fluency. In this article, I will give you an introduction to the psychological concept and explain, how it can make your products and services more appealing and convincing.
Easy products are more appealing than ever. Accordingly, designing for easiness is one of the prominent goals of many User Experience Designers. But why exactly is that? To start with, let me highlight a few reasons why easiness nowadays is particularly important.
Firstly, technological and cultural progress has allowed us to create products and services that are highly complex. Innovative products such as sophisticated software suites have an increasing number of features. For instance, it’s said that most people using Microsoft Excel are only aware of a fraction of the features contained in the software. An easy design can counterbalance this kind of complexity.
What is more, rapid progress also causes that people have to accustom to new products more rapidly. If someone bought a television in the 60s, they were likely to use the product for many years. Today, some people replace their mobile phone on a yearly basis. Also, the number of technological devices in our environment has increased significantly. We use a range of different devices every day, some of which we might have never seen before in our life. This is only possible if products are intuitive and easy to use. Cognitive fluency can lead to a feeling of familiarity and intuitiveness that a product or service experience can benefit from.
Finally, our society has become highly mobile. Not only do people change their residence and work place more often. They are also used to communicate, work or be entertained on the go. This has lead to a completely new area of research and design called mobile interaction, which is particularly concerned with the distractions mobile users are confronted with. For example, a car navigation system should ideally be usable without direct attention so that drivers do not have to avert their eyes off the street. Again, easiness is crucial for this type of interaction.
There are many different aspects and definitions of easiness. The one I want to talk about here is cognitive fluency. The term describes how easy it is to process a certain stimulus. In general, one can discern two different kinds of cognitive fluency.
Conceptual fluency deals with the easiness of processing the meaning of a stimulus. For example, imagine a person giving a speech. If she uses many scientific words and complex sentence structures, it will be hard to understand what she is talking about. That is, the conceptual fluency is low. If she talks in clear, easy to grasp sentences, the conceptual fluency of her speech is high.
Perceptual fluency, in contrast, describes how easy it is to perceive a stimulus with one’s senses. To stick with the above example, if everyone is talking while the woman is trying to give her speech, perceptual fluency would be low. If the audience is silent instead and the woman is talking into a microphone, the aural perceptual fluency of her speech would be high. Perceptual fluency can refer to all types of senses. In most cases, though, you will find that aural and visual senses are the most relevant ones.
As we learned, conceptual fluency is high if a stimulus is easy to understand. Besides the use of adequate vocabulary and grammatical structures, we tend to understand things more easily if they are embedded in a meaningful context. If someone would call you right now in order to talk to you about some political topic, it would take a moment for you to understand what the person says. The reason is that you are thinking about something else at moment (about cognitive fluency as I hope) and it would take you some time to shift your mindset to the political issue.
This notion can be applied to a range of different practical examples. The statements of a TV commercial will be easier to understand if it is screened during the broadcast of a similar topic. The product tour of an app will be easier to comprehend if the advice is given bit by bit in the very moment a person uses a feature rather than condensed when the person starts the app for the first time.
However, the right conceptual framing can also be created deliberately. Think about the TV commercial of a cold drink. Viewers could be introduced to the topic by showing scenes of a hot summer day. After initializing this scenario, the presentation of a cold lemonade or sparkling water makes much more sense. In psychology, this is called priming.
Another way to improve conceptual fluency is to group information into sensible chunks. Texts, for instance, should be structured into paragraphs, where every paragraph covers a precise aspect of a topic. Likewise, the controls of a software or physical product should ideally be grouped in a way that the user can infer their function just by looking at the layout of the interface.
Perceptual fluency is elicited by clear stimuli. Visually, this can be achieved by high color contrast, good illumination and sufficient size of elements. Especially texts can suffer from small and difficult to read fonts. Also, white space on websites improves perceptual fluency, which is why it is a good idea to not cram too much information on too little space. Aurally, perception is facilitated if sounds and speech are sufficiently loud, clear and of adequate pace.
Additionally, perceptual fluency can also be achieved by repeated presentation of a stimulus. This effect is called mere exposure in psychology. It is hypothesized that stimuli are easier to process if a person has perceived them before. However, research results have been ambiguous in this regard, suggesting that it depends on the way a stimulus is repeated whether this effect shows. One potential pitfall is discussed further down.
Cognitive fluency is a very important aspect of product design. It basically describes whether people can easily understand what your product is about, how they can use it and how it can benefit them. Even though you might have a great product and spend a fortune on marketing, the cognitive fluency of your communication and the product itself is like a gatekeeper. Designing low cognitive fluency is like locking your product in a drawer and hiding the key. Only few people will bother to search for it. To be precise, high cognitive fluency will improve your product, service or information in three ways:
Cognitive fluency depends on a number of factors that may enforce or inhibit its effects. Firstly, the effects tend to be more pronounced if information is perceived automatically and fast. This tends to be the case if people are in a rush or generally in a good mood. E.g. a flyer on a festival is probably going to be perceived rather casually, making its cognitive fluency more important. Also, information that is not of central relevance tends to be perceived this way: For example the interior design of a shop, the live ticker on a news channel or a poster in the street.
On the contrary, if someone perceives information centrally and consciously, they are less likely to be affected by its cognitive fluency. A person reading a scientific paper is probably less likely to regard the information as true or of high quality just because the layout it easy to process. However, as soon as their attention decreases or they experience time pressure, the importance of cognitive fluency is likely to take effect again.
Also, effects may be overridden if a person becomes aware of the cognitive fluency of a stimulus. In Germany, we have a number of radio commercials that repeat the brand name several times in a row. Apparently, they are trying to burn it into people’s brain. While they might be successful in this regard, I highly doubt that many people will be positively affected by this procedure. In contrast, this kind of obvious repetition my even lead to frustration and an attribution of negative feelings to the brand.
What is more, researchers have found that the before mentioned truth affect can be augmented by encouraging people to focus on their feelings. This can be observed well at the much-quoted company Apple: Not only are their products mostly high in cognitive fluency, but they are also presented quite emotionally at Apple’s keynotes, in commercials and on the website.
Visually and aurally clear presentation, conceptual framing, repeated exposure and sensible arrangement of information elements render products and communication easy to grasp. Products and services with high cognitive fluency are rated more beautiful, pleasant and important. Also, easy and clear communication is perceived as convincing and truthful. Thus, improving perceptibility and understandability may have a significant impact on your business. This especially applies to aspects that are not central to people’s perception or have emotional value.
A little downer: Recent research has shown that easiness does not always benefit a product. There are some particular cases in which difficult perception can actually improve product ratings and make them seem more interesting. This notion has become a subject under discussion in design quite recently. I will cover it in one of the next articles, so stay tuned 🙂