Why Simple Websites are Better #4 - Working Memory

There have been some fun experiments carried out into working memory, or, how much information a person is able to temporarily store in their short term memory and how that affects their decision making capabilities.

My favorite involves asking the subject to remember either a single digit number or a seven digit number, then ‘by chance’ offering them a piece of chocolate cake or a fruit salad. Those who had been given a single digit number more often chose the fruit salad, while those with the longer number to remember chose the chocolate cake. The theory is that the ones carrying a ‘lighter cognitive load’ had more brain power left to resist the lure of the cake.

This is important for your web design, because you want to ensure your visitors are processing what you want them to – i.e. your USPs (unique selling points) and special offers.

If your website is too deviant from the prototype, lackscognitive fluency or is too visually complex, then the poor user will be exhausted before they’ve even noticed you’ve got 40% off everything.

Having expended all that brainpower just looking at your website, they will feel disengaged and tired and will switch over to somewhere else that makes them feel more relaxed and at home – i.e. your competitor’s site.

However, if they’re arrived at your site and it instantly looks familiar, feels straightforward and doesn’t distract, then they can immediately get on with what they came there for in the first place – i.e. buying your products and services.

Check out these articles for more detail on why simple website are better:

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Why Simple Websites are Better #3 - Visual Processing of Complexity

Most people instinctively know that a ‘busy’ or ‘fussy’ website is no good, and that a ‘clean’ or ‘simple’ design is better.

One of the scientific reasons behind this intuition is that visually complex images take more brainpower to process than visually simple ones, which directly translates in them taking more effort.

Nature always leans towards the conservation of energy, so brains sub-consciously ‘dislike’ having to expend more effort.

When your eye and brain process an image, they analyse a variety of things, including colour, light levels, shape, size and distance. The more variables there are in each of these aspects the more brainpower will be required.

The problem with using all this brainpower to process the ‘image’ that is the landing page of your website, is that you would really prefer your users to be thinking about your products, services and unique selling points (USPs).

If their brain is distracted making sense of three different columns, each with multi-coloured adverts, several fonts in lots of colours and a plethora of pictures, they’re not going to have any energy left to think about whether they want to buy something from you or not.

If you want to learn about good web design and bad web design, then have a look at our resource bank.

Why Simple Websites are Better #2 - Cognitive Fluency

Keep it simple, stupid!

Successful people have long known that the simple solution is almost always the best one, but unfortunately when it comes to practice, too many designers and clients think that having lots of varying stuff on their website will somehow meet the needs of everyone – rather than nobody.

Good designers instinctively know that simple, familiar designs will perform better, and one of the scientific theories that backs up this intuition is cognitive fluency.

So, what is cognitive fluency and why does it matter for my website?

Cognitive fluency refers to the experience of how easy or difficult it is to think about something. As a general rule, humans prefer things that are easy to think about and shy away from things that are hard to think about.

This principle influences pretty much every aspect of human behaviour - and decision making when it comes to buying goods and services online is no exception.

So, if a user reaches a website for the first time, but the navigation looks similar to the vast majority of other websites they been to, then it will feel familiar and ‘right’ and they will feel at home and know how to proceed.

On the other hand, if they arrive and the navigation is in a completely unexpected place, or requires them to figure out some kind of krypton factoresque puzzle in order to find their way around the site, they are more likely to think the site is ‘wrong’ or at the very least it leave them with a vague, sub-conscious uncomfortable feeling.

The Mere Exposure Effect

Cognitive fluency is closely linked with The Mere Exposure Effect, which basically states that the more you are exposed to something, the more you prefer it. This can easily be seen when popular brands change their imagery, and all the customers moan and groan that it’s not as good anymore, even in the product inside is identical.

If you’re smart, you can take advantage of this exposure effect with your web design, by playing on the experiences people will have had in the past and ensuring your website echoes those experiences.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you should just copy everyone else, or that all websites should always look exactly like they did in the 90s – far from it. But you need to use originality and innovation where it works, and in small enough chunks that it delights your users in comfort rather than baffling them.

Further reading:

Read more interesting and research backed up stuff about cognitive fluency here: http://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2011/07/how-cognitive-fluency-affects-decision-making.php