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Three tips for increasing cognitive fluency

Updated: Jan 20, 2023

Take a look at these two letters about the exact same topic and answer this question: which is easier to read?

We just asked you to weigh up two options and make a decision with limited information. In this case, we suspect you chose the option on the right, and we also suspect you did so immediately. Your subconscious just helped you decide on the “easier” option without your having to read a word!

In decision making science, this is called cognitive fluency or the perception of how easy or difficult it is to process and complete a mental task. Cognitive fluency has nothing to do with how easy or difficult the task really is; it’s simply our perception of it. When something looks easier, we believe it is.

Why does cognitive fluency matter in information design? First of all, when we perceive something to be easier, we are more willing to engage with it. We are more likely to read an easy-looking letter than a hard one just like we are more likely to spend time on an easy-to-navigate website than a cluttered one.

But it goes further than engagement: we are also more likely to trust and use information we perceive as easy. In two products with exactly the same type of information, the one with higher cognitive fluency will be used more and trusted more.

As information designers, Kingsley-Kleimann’s team is constantly challenged to help our clients communicate complex concepts to consumers. Our goal is to reduce the amount of cognitive strain required for people to read, understand, and take action on the communications our clients generate. The trick is to find a balance between design and language in the presentation of information. In the two letters above, the topic and information was the same, but we made some very conscious design decisions to increase the cognitive fluency.

Tip 1: Cut the words

As a reader, experiencing a “wall of text” can feel like a tsunami – overwhelming and even frightening. Avoid verbose, convoluted language by writing in plain language. Cut out the extra words and try to find the essence of the message. By breaking down the message to its simplest form, you can encourage understanding on the part of the reader.

This section of the letter about probationary requirements not only looks easier, it is easier. We removed extra words and sentences and set up tasks as a checklist. By cutting extra words, we set the reader up for success and give them a task-oriented view of their first six months on the job.

Tip 2: Use headings

Rather than presenting long sentences and paragraphs that overwhelm readers, take steps to break the content into manageable chunks and then provide headings. Readers can quickly quantify how much relevant information is being presented and what it’s about. Headings provide the opportunity to provide a quick overview of what will be communicated, and they give the user “signposts” which help them quickly interpret information. Headings allow for easy transitions between topics and allow the reader to skim the information efficiently.

In this letter, the three headings help a reader see that this letter is about three requirements – which was impossible to ascertain in the first letter. For a reader, we’ve made it as easy as 1, 2, 3.

Tip 3: Use the appropriate visual tools

As designers, we have a vast toolbox for creating information right at our fingertips. In fact, everyone with a computer can be a designer! Visual tools include anything that helps us design and organize information to improve how consumers interpret content. In this letter we used a variety of tools:

  • A better, more readable font

  • A ragged right justification

  • White space

  • Bullet lists

  • A checklist

All of these made the information more approachable and appealing. Instead of a massive “wall of text” that stretches from margin to margin in a typewriter-type font, the reader gets breathing room. By using a simple set of design tools, we did the readers’ work for them. And, in doing so, we enhanced their willingness to engage and bolstered their comprehension as well.

Feel like you could use help with your communications?

We help clients streamline and improve their communications. Whether you are communicating through a marketing campaign, disclosure, or notice you may be battling the pull between giving readers enough information and triggering a flight response because the information seems daunting. We can help you! Contact us today to start a discussion.

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