Did you know that the likelihood of a shopper buying your products is significantly influenced by how easy or hard it is to think about them? And that shoppers are much more likely to buy things that are easy to think about rather than items that are harder to consider.
This feeling of easy or hard is known as processing fluency. Processing Fluency is a cognitive bias or mistake in reasoning: It can be defined as a measure of how easy it is to think about something.
Processing fluency literally changes how we think about things and guides our decision making. What’s more, most of us have little or no awareness of the hold it has over us. Typically it is at work in any situation where we consider information (any form of mental input). The full extent of its potential to mislead can be illustrated by the fact that we often misattribute the sensation of ease or difficulty of mentally processing something to actually liking or disliking the thing itself.
To learn more about how processing fluency works, let’s start by looking at some research. Robert Zajonc found that the more people were exposed to certain words, patterns, or images of faces, the more they liked them. His research identified what we now know as the Mere Exposure Effect: From a retail perspective, the more times shoppers are exposed to certain products the more quickly they can mentally process them and subsequently, but mistakenly, the more they like them. Think secondary sitings and gondola ends here.
This insight reveals that mere familiarity has a strong influence over what types of products shoppers find attractive. Therefore, this familiarity is a strong motivator of shopping behaviour. To summarise, shoppers like things that are familiar because they don’t require as much mental effort as things that are new and different do.
Because familiarity with an item in-store simplifies mental processing, it feels fluent. And conversely, shoppers often equate any feeling of fluency with familiarity. In other words, if it is easy to mentally process, I mistakenly think I like/prefer it more.
When researchers presented participants with the names of hypothetical food additives and asked them to judge how harmful they might be. People perceived additives with names that were hard to pronounce as being more harmful than those with names that were easier to pronounce. They were associating ease or difficulty of pronunciation with an assumption about familiarity. When the pronunciation seemed easy, people assumed it was because they’d previously encountered the additive and had already done the mental work of processing information about it. Since it seemed familiar, they assumed it was safe.
Ease of pronunciation is just one of many aspects of processing fluency. In a separate study, researchers asked participants to read instructions on how to do an exercise routine. They presented the instructions in two different fonts—a font that was easy to read and a font that was more difficult to read.
When they asked participants to estimate how long it would take to actually perform the exercise routine, people anticipated that it would take almost twice as long to do the exercise when reading instructions in the font that was difficult to read, compared to the font that was easier to read. With the font that was easy to read, they also assumed that the exercise routine would flow more naturally and were, therefore, more willing to incorporate it into their daily activities.
In this study, participants were misattributing the difficulty of reading the instructions to the task itself. This again demonstrates the potential power (positive and negative) of processing fluency and how it can influence shopper’s purchase decisions. If you want people to adopt a new product, it’s important to consider how easily they will be able to mentally process information about it.
The legibility of fonts can even affect shopper’s perception of truth. In one study, researchers asked people to view unfamiliar statements in either light coloured or darker coloured print. Because the foreground/background contrast was better with the darker print, resulting in better readability, people tended to rate those statements as more truthful.
The darker print with better contrast resulted in better processing fluency. Because those statements seemed easy to decipher, people assumed they were familiar. Is it any wonder that supermarket special offers consisting of black text on a red background, aren’t as effective as the much more legible white on red messages?
Researchers have also found that, when a stimulus feels fluent, shoppers are more likely to make judgments and decisions based on their first, emotional (system 1) reaction. However, when a stimulus feels disfluent, they are more likely to adopt a more rational (system 2) evaluation. Sometimes it’s good to get shoppers to slow down and pay attention; for example, when we want to ‘snap them out of autopilot’. One way to do this is to deliberately make the information harder to process mentally by making its font harder to read or by using wording that is harder to process.
It is beyond doubt that processing fluency plays an influential role in product evaluation and purchase decision making. And that numerous aspects of design can impact fluency, or the feeling of mental effort: From the style and size of fonts to foreground/background contrast.
In general, anything that affects the ease or difficulty of mental processing influences shopper purchase decisions. And don’t think that processing fluency is only related to what shoppers see. It is truly multi-sensory: Researchers have found that a simple (more easily processed) scent led to simpler cognitive processing and increased actual spending, whereas a more complex scent had no such effect.
In conclusion, just once in a while, spare a thought for those consumers and shoppers less familiar with the products you offer. In other words, resist the temptation to over explain otherwise, you might just turn them away.
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