What Role Does Cognitive Fluency Play in Design?
Many aspects of design can impact cognitive fluency, i.e. how much mental effort users feel they are expending on a task. Relevant design factors include:
- The style and size of fonts
- Color contrast between text and background
- Word choice and terminology
In general, anything that impacts people’s feelings about how easy it is to perform a mental task can—and does—affect their judgments and decisions.
This is why, for example, many websites these days seem to have a similar look and feel. Users will judge sites with familiar designs as easier to use and navigate.
What Challenges Do Designers Face with Cognitive Fluency?
One challenge for designers in terms of cognitive fluency is not getting too attached to your work. As you spend more and more time creating a design, you become more familiar with it and your brain creates a sense of cognitive fluency, causing you to view it more positively. This is why it’s usually a good idea to get a second opinion on your designs from someone with a fresh set of eyes.
Cognitive fluency can work in interesting ways: it’s not always about how clean and simple the design is, but how easy and familiar users judge it to be. Here at Very, for example, we had a client working in the biomedical engineering space that needed us to create a research portal. After doing user research, we realized quickly that the site shouldn’t be too flashy or pretty in its design.
These users were familiar with the cluttered, “ugly” appearance of many websites in academia that have been built by non-designers. Seeing information presented in a design that was too “beautiful” made them more suspicious and more likely to bounce away from the site.
Another classic example of cognitive fluency gone wrong is the e-commerce retailer Woot, which offers cheap deals on a variety of products. The website initially had a very basic, straightforward design that users had grown accustomed to navigating.
When the company redesigned its website several years ago to be sleeker and more elegant, many users stopped visiting the site. The previous bare-bones appearance of the Woot website actually made shoppers feel as though they were getting a better deal on the products they bought, as though it were a virtual “flea market.”
The key takeaway from this concept of cognitive fluency, first and foremost, should be to know your audience. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel by doing something that’s too new or too different for them, and don’t get swept away by the latest trendy designs. Look at the work through your customers’ eyes, and build a final product that will be cognitively fluent for them to use.
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