What do horror films have in common with your website? Hopefully very little, but in many cases, they both create similar negative feelings in your audience.
You may be surprised to realize that some of the most famous scary movies don’t contain blatantly scary scenes. Many films (such as The Lighthouse, The Shining and the many terrifying films of David Lynch) develop a sense of creeping dread without using horrific images. Producer and director Stanley Kubrick built and shot the hotel setting for The Shining so that it had a physically impossible layout, knowing that the viewer’s confusion would lead to a deep, maybe even subconscious, feeling of fear.
Moviegoers often can’t describe why such scenes are so scary, but if you understand the techniques being used, you can actually reverse them to make your digital experiences feel better.
Many talented movie directors have figured out something about human nature that modern psychology is just beginning to prove through research: confusion and disorientation make us feel bad, while understanding and mastery make us feel good. Scientists have found that participants feel reliably emotionally worse about options that are associated with distractions than about the same options presented with more clarity.
The effect I’m describing is called cognitive fluency: the ability to process information and make sense of it. High cognitive fluency means that understanding happens quickly and effortlessly, while low cognitive fluency means that understanding comes slowly and with difficulty.
Remember the last time you struggled to read an article because it was surrounded by blinking ads and popup messages? I call this a high cognitive load experience. Both academic studies and our own research have shown that websites with a high cognitive load lead to low cognitive fluency for users. In other words, users have trouble immediately making sense of what they’re seeing, and this creates a negative emotional response.
This applies to more than just distracting ads on publishing websites. A disjointed flow of information on an e-commerce shopping experience can create cognitive hitches—brief moments of confusion in absorbing new information. You can imagine your users’ eyes narrowing and then darting around the screen looking for an explanation for what seems to be a contradiction, a leap in logic or an overwhelmed feeling. They can be caused by obvious problems like missing critical information, or by subtle things like inappropriate emotional language or design embellishments.
When you pile on too many cognitive hitches, you have a recipe for a conversion rate disaster. Web designers have been taking cognitive fluency into account for years, with Steve Krug (author of Don’t Make Me Think) being one of the most prominent proponents of simplicity in web design. By understanding the concept more clearly, we can begin to make these choices more effectively.
Years ago, I developed the LIFT model for evaluating and improving user experiences. Of the six factors in this model, probably the one I identify problems most reliably with is clarity—the observation that users are more likely to buy when information is easy to understand.
So, how do we maximize clarity? One way is to design for cognitive fluency.
As human beings, we’ve evolved to detect things that stand out as potential threats. This has led to a particular way of processing information, where we start with a visual understanding, then a quick conceptual understanding of that picture. Our brains neurologically zero in on contrast as the easiest source of information about a picture, tracking motion and finding the outlines of objects in a scene as the first stage of perception and cognitive fluency.
This leads to both predictable and surprising outcomes.
On one hand, we intuitively understand the intent of some communication design principles—italics representing motion, for instance. The alerting color red is understood to represent error alerts, while animation should be used sparingly because of its overwhelming power to arrest attention (hence the downfall of Flash websites… RIP).
Elements also interact to create unpredictable user outcomes. As an example, our research has found that cognitive fluency within an experience grows over time. People learn the layout of a website, for example, and then feel the positive emotional effects of mastery as they navigate with increasing ease.
In other words, the cognitive load of a page decreases with use, but there’s a catch. This emotional affinity can disappear in response to a site redesign, even if that redesign improves the clarity for newcomers. Newcomers don’t experience your website the same way as your core customers.
That’s one reason we often see redesigned experiences hurting conversion performance even if they’re objectively better. People are simply accustomed to the old, worse one. This makes overhaul redesigns risky! The best way to avoid the redesign risk is to iteratively experiment your way to a new design. Not only will you make design changes more incrementally so users become used to them bit by bit; you’ll also reduce risk by proving which individual changes are improvements.
Everything from the messaging hierarchy to the weight of a font to the facial expression of a photo subject can impact cognitive fluency. The details matter. That’s why the most effective digital experiences now rely on iterative experimentation. The subtleties of communication clarity can have major business effects, so take the time to consider cognitive fluency in every customer touch point, and test all major touch points.
Otherwise, you’ll never be able to accurately predict users’ reactions. Do they feel like they’re happily walking a well-lit path, or like they’re trapped in a labyrinth? The answer could determine whether your users associate your company with positive or negative feelings.
So, if there’s any uncertainty in the design of your experiences, remember: You should test that!