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When Being Difficult Has Its Benefits

In a recent Boston Globe article Easy=True, Drake Bennett examines the psychological effects of cognitive fluency and disfluency -- how people react to things based on how easy or difficult they are to process. Bennett concludes that humans "are suspicious of difficulty, but perhaps we can learn to use that."

Marketers have much to learn from the findings that Bennet explores. While usability experts have long practiced the art of making things easy, there's also much to learn from making things difficult or less familiar (familiarity plays a vital role in the ease of processing).

When answering questions posed in less legible font, people answer more honestly. When products are less familiar, they are perceived as more innovative. Crisp, light writing may be easier to read, but the content of dense writing appears more complex, even if it isn't -- a clear benefit for anyone trying to leverage a position of thought leadership.

"Fluent things are familiar, but also boring and comfortable" says Piotr Winkielman. "Disfluency is intriguing and novel. Sometimes you like comfort food, like when you’re sick. And usually you want to try something new when you’re more comfortable."

These findings reveal to marketers the importance of the customer's psychological state. Will the product be ignored if it's too unique, or will it be the recipient of adoration for breaking outside the box? Will users enjoy this cunning feature on the website, or will they reject it as unfamiliar?

The answers to these questions largely depend on how bored and comfortable people are with their current options. In a boring and comfortable space, a bit of disfluency can go a long ways towards appearing as a fresh alternative. On the other hand, in rapidly changing spaces, people are less receptive to radical design approaches.

Rather than focusing solely on making things easy to use, marketers and designers need to be collaborating to gauge the market. Are they ready for innovation or are they hungry for consistency? How much of the unfamiliar and difficult will they embrace, and when is too easy too boring?

Written by Chris Allison on February 3, 2010

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Written by
Chris Allison