Cognitive Fluency

Cognitive Fluency and Effective Web Design

“Simple is best.” This phrase is used often, in many different situations. With web design, it’s just as true.

Not only do we say simple is best, but also “easy is best.” With the dynamically changing web and the continual evolution of web technologies, it might be counterintuitive to think that “simple” and “easy” are keys to website design success, but actually they are two of the most important foundational factors underlying a great user experience.

The KISS Principle

In 1960, the U.S. Navy used the acronym KISS to remind everyone to “Keep It Simple, Stupid”. The KISS principle is essentially the concept that systems work best when kept simple and therefore simplicity should be a goal in systems design.

It’s the same in web design. Not because people can’t comprehend more complex tasks or navigate their way through inconsistent, byzantine navigation, but rather because our brains are hard-wired to enjoy simplicity and ease-of-use. The good feelings that the experience engenders makes website visitors feel an affinity towards the brand that is delivering such an experience.

Think of it this way. If you instead offer up a website that puts the onus on your site visitor to figure out what you specifically offer, or why they should purchase from you, or even why they should give a hoot about you at all, then you’re making it physically harder for them to become a lead. What business in its right mind would voluntarily do this?

Cognitive Fluency

Our brains are hard-wired to enjoy information processing when it’s easy and intuitive. And so if you’re looking to improve the marketing results from your website, you need to focus on improving your site visitors’ ability to immediately and intuitively understand what’s presented and what they should take away from the experience.

“Cognitive fluency” is the measure by which one’s brain processes information. A high level of cognitive fluency means that something is easy for one’s brain to process, whereas a low level means that something is relatively difficult to understand, decipher or to get through.

What’s key to understand about cognitive fluency is that it impacts not only your brain, but how you feel about something. In other words, the sensation of ease or difficulty in our thinking guides us to feel a certain away about it. If your site visitor becomes confused by what’s on your web page, or if they have difficulty figuring out how to find what they are seeking on your site, guess what? A low level of cognitive fluency. Worse, it can result in a poor brand experience and negative feelings towards your brand as a whole. Whoa!

You can see the extensive effects of cognitive fluency throughout society and life. Psychologists have found that shares in companies with easier-to-pronounce names perform better than those with difficult-to-pronounce names. Even just changing the font of text on a page to something more legible can actually alter people’s judgments about the veracity of the statement. Crazy! But true…

The Power of Simple Web Design

When your site visitor lands on your website, their brains get to work. Physically, the retina converts what it’s seeing on the page (the visual structure, images, headlines, messaging, calls-to-action, etc.) into electrical impulses, and these are transmitted to photoreceptor cells that deliver information to the brain, which proceeds to code and store the information. This can then be used by various parts of the brain for memory and perception, for example. The more strenuous the effort to go through this process, the less enjoyable the experience. The easier the process, the more your site visitors associate good feelings with the experience. And all of this happens fast. Lightning fast.

In a 2012 Google Study, Google uncovered that your site visitors are judging your website’s design within 50 milliseconds, and to a degree even within 17 milliseconds. To give you a sense of how fast that is, it probably took you a few seconds to just read that sentence alone. Talk about the need for cognitive fluency!

The study further found that visually complex websites are consistently rated as less beautiful than simpler sites. Complementary to this finding, the study revealed that site visitors tended to favor visually simple websites that fit an “industry mold.” In other words, the more that a website generally adhered to a common category prototype of website layout, the more that people reacted favorably to the site, as it was easier for their brains to process the information and convert that info into understanding.

Better Branding & Increased Conversions

Let’s put all of this into context.

If you want more powerful and more positive brand impact when someone visits your website, keep the site simple. Keep it visually stunning, but keep it simple. Stunning does not mean complicated. Of course you’ll want the design to reflect your brand identity, values and positioning. But at the core, make it extremely easy to understand what to do on your site.

Along the same lines, focusing on an easy-to-use site will help you to drive increased conversions. Whether you’re looking for more free trial registrations, event sign-ups or contact form submissions, use whitespace liberally, make the page visual, keep it intuitive, group related items together, make use of headlines and sub-heads, and overall make the page easy-to-scan. Improve cognitive fluency, and you’ll improve your conversion rate.

Photo Credit: Sean Brown