The K.I.S.S. Principle
In 1960, the U.S. Navy coined the acronym K.I.S.S. to remind everyone to “Keep It Simple, Stupid”.
Simplicity beats complexity—that’s the idea behind “processing fluency“, also called “cognitive fluency” and “cognitive ease”. It refers to a user’s subjective perception of how easy or difficult it is to process and complete a mental task. In short: we prefer things that are easy to read and understand (“fluent information”). Understanding something effortlessly helps us act quickly and confidently.
In one study, researchers presented students with a paper that described a workout routine or a recipe for preparing sushi. The texts were written in a font that was either easy to read or difficult to read. Students who received the text in the easily legible font believed that the instructions were easier to follow than those who received the text in the complicated font.
Simpler = More Valuable
With higher processing fluency comes a positive effect on many aspects of the way people perceive, judge and experience something. Fluency makes people trust something more, make it feel more familiar, more effortless, more aesthetically pleasing, more valuable.
Our brains are wired to enjoy information processing when it’s easy and intuitive. Since we want to improve the marketing results from a website, we 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.
Simpler = Better Conversion
Websites with high processing fluency often have higher conversion rates. Website designs that are simple, straightforward, and even minimalistic are easier for people to process. Processing fluency is also a big part of why people tend to prefer things that are visually simple. We see complicated websites as being less beautiful because the more our eyes and brains have to take in, the harder they have to work to decode, store, and process that information.
In a 2012 Google Study, Google uncovered that your site visitors are judging your website’s design within 50 milliseconds. The study further found that visually complex websites are consistently rated as less beautiful than simpler sites and that site visitors tended to favour visually simple websites that fit an “industry mold.” In other words, the more a website generally adhered to a common category prototype of website layout, the more that people reacted favourably to the site, as it was easier for their brains to process the information and convert that info into understanding.
You Confuse, You Lose
On the flip side, when you confuse, you lose. When something is difficult to understand, you’re less likely to complete a task or make a decision. It takes extra brain power. And when you’re confused you feel like you need to examine something closely, making it more likely you second guess yourself and talk yourself out of buying that product.
Comfort in Familiarity
This psychological phenomenon for processing fluency is the “exposure effect” (also known as the “familiarity principle”). We perceive things that are familiar to us more positively, whether it’s a song we keep hearing on the radio or a stranger we see on the street every day. This also explains why users react so negatively whenever their favourite website undergoes a fresh redesign.
As web designers, our job is to make sure people have an experience on the website that meets their basic expectations. That doesn’t mean we can’t be creative, but we do need to make websites that people understand how to use.
Using Controlled Complexity
Processing fluency is most important for the parts of the site that people will be looking for on purpose (for example, the website’s navigation). But what about information they aren’t looking for, but that we still need them to see, like special offers or new hours?
In those cases, we need to create contrast with their visual expectations to make their eyes (and brains) stop and take notice. Breaking away from established colours or using a unique animation are examples of things we can do to subtly disrupt the processing fluency of a page, causing the viewer’s mind to stop and purposely analyze the situation.
If you want more powerful and positive brand impact when someone visits your website, keep the site simple. Keep it visually stunning, but keep it simple. Stunning doesn’t 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 for users to accomplish their goals (find a solution to their problem) on your site as efficiently as possible.
Tips to Increase Processing Fluency on Your Site and Keep it Simple
- Make the page easy-to-scan. Assume very few people will read more than 18% of the words on your site (because this is how people consume web pages). Make use of headlines and sub-heads, bullet point lists and whenever possible, use images and illustrations rather than words to communicate.
- Use whitespace liberally.
- Group related items together.
- Keep navbars small (less than 7 links). If more, use dropdowns.
- Keep your writing at an 8th-grade level (reading level of the average American).
- Minimize use of animations, particularly those that don’t add any value to your message. There’s usually no reason for all elements to come flying in as they appear on the page. If the animation can help reinforce a concept or tell your story then fine, otherwise skip them.
- Don’t use surprise popups. Despite user’s familiarity with popups that appear out of nowhere begging you to sign up for something, they are universally hated and nowadays and the extra noise tends to turn people off and make them bolt. If you do use them, they should be an unobtrusive as possible.
- Reduce the number of fields in your checkout form. Use a single “full name” field. Don’t ask for company name, website, phone number, job title, etc. And use city and province/state auto-detection based on the zip/postal code.
- Have customers create an account after their purchase, not before. Don’t get in their way!