Have you ever been in a situation where you've had to assemble something but the instruction manual was hard to read which in turn made it difficult to assemble whatever it was you were trying to put together? Or perhaps you were following a recipe for a dish you wanted to make and found it took more time to prepare than it really should have?
Everyday people interact and make decisions around products and services not realizing they are being affected by the information presented on those products or services at a subconscious level. When it comes to decision making or completing a task, how information is presented can play an important role in how that decision or task is completed. Not surprisingly, when thinking about a decision or a task, the simpler it is, the more we prefer it. This is due to the feeling of ease we get that's associated with the simple thought. That feeling of ease is known as cognitive fluency. Cognitive fluency influences our behaviour, particularly when we are in situations where we have to weigh information – like reading a recipe, or writing a test.
To understand how it works let's look back at some early research. In the 1960's, psychologist Robert Zajonc found that people tend to develop a preference for things after repeated exposure to them. In his experiments, Zajonc exposed subjects to a variety of stimuli from language and the frequency of words to drawings, patterns and photographs of people's expressions. The more the subjects were exposed to the same stimuli, the more they tended to have a preference for them relative to other newly introduced stimuli. This preference for the familiar would become known as the Mere Exposure Effect. Combined with new research, it revealed a strong motivator of human behaviour for the familiar.
When it comes to cognitive fluency, what we deem familiar, ends up being easier for our brains to process. Previous encounters mean our brains don't have to spend time over analyzing. The familiar becomes fluent in our minds. When faced with weighing information such as making a decision or judgement, that interaction, can be put along a continuum from fluent to disfluent. Things that are fluent we are quick to make a judgement on because of our familiarity with them where as things that are disfluent require more thought. Fluency has been described as a mental shortcut that we use to determine whether something that we've encountered before is worth thinking about.
As people, we are very sensitive to the experience of fluency and disfluency. There are many things that can influence the feeling of fluency. One such thing – typography. In a 2008 study by Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz at the University of Michigan, Song and Schwarz found that when people read instructions for an exercise regime or a recipe in a difficult to read font, it directly effected the perception of the difficulty of the task. There was a tendency to rate the exercise or recipe more complicated than if they read about them in a clearer font (see below). The study showed that people were transferring the difficulty of reading the instructions onto the task itself.
In sum, people misread the ease of processing instructions as indicative of the ease with which the described behaviour can be executed. In the present studies, participants reported that the behaviour would take more time, would feel less fluent and natural, and would require more skill, and hence were less willing to engage in it, when the instructions were printed in a difficult-to-read rather than an easy-to-read font.
In another study by Schwarz and Rolf Reber, the visibility and colour of type were found to affect the perceptual fluency of truth. In their study, 235 people were shown 32 statements of the form "Town A is in country B" (e.g., Osorno is in Chile: Lima is in Peru) in which half of the statements were actually true. Participants had to decide whether statements were true or not as the statements were presented in either moderately visible colours or highly visible colours.
Statements of the form ‘‘Osorno is in Chile’’ were presented in colors that made them easy or difficult to read against a white background and participants judged the truth of the statement. Moderately visible statements were judged as true at chance level, whereas highly visible statements were judged as true significantly above chance level. We conclude that perceptual fluency affects judgments of truth.
Disfluency also has its value. In another study by Schwarz and Hyejeung Cho, they found that difficulty in processing information is novel for consumers resulting in assessment of a product's 'innovativeness' due to it being less familiar. Disfluency effectively makes us slow down and think carefully and perhaps more abstractly. A joint study by researchers at Princeton University, the University of Chicago and Harvard University discovered that type that was harder to read made subjects work harder at reading questions for a Cognitive Recognition Test. Students were initially given tests in easy to read, Myriad 12 point at 100% black. Results showed they averaged 1.9 correct answers out of three. When given the harder to read type (in this case 10-point italics Myriad Pro at 10 percent grey, scores averaged 2.45 (see below).
In another joint study by Princeton University and Indiana University, researches discovered that disfluency may actually lead to improved memory performance. In their first of two studies, 28 participants were asked to learn about three species of aliens, each of which had seven features for a total of 21 features that needed to be learned. Alien vs actual species were used to ensure participants had no prior knowledge of the domain. They were then presented with the features in both easy to read (fluent) vs challenging (disfluent) type. The fluent fonts were presented in 16-point Arial at 100% black. The disfluent were set in 12-point Comic sans MS at 60% grey or 12-point Bodoni MT at 60% grey. A between-subjects design was used so that participants were only exposed to one font at a time. They were then given 90 seconds to memorize the information in the lists. After 15 minutes of unrelated tasks (used as distraction), they were then asked questions about the alien features (e.g., "What is the diet of the pangerish?" or "What color eyes does the norgletti have?").
On average, participants, when reading the fluent type, answered successfully 72.8% of the questions. When reading the disfluent type, answered successfully 86.5% of the time – a recollection of 14% more than those in the fluent condition.
For their second study, 222 high school students were given learning material presented to them in a disfluent vs control category. Teachers provided the researches with material to be used for the experiment. The researches then adjusted fonts in the disfluent category to either Haettenschweiller, Monotype Corsiva, Comic Sans Italicized or were copied disfluently by moving paper up and down while copying. Fonts in the control category were untouched. The researches then gave back the modified material to the teachers to use for their lessons. The length of the study was relative to the subject and length of the teacher's lesson plan ranging from one week-and-a-half to a month. The results showed that students in the disfluent condition scored higher on classroom assessments that those in the control. The study also showed that retention of material across a range of subjects and difficulty levels can be improved by presenting material in a format that is "slightly harder to read." They concluded the following:
[...], fluency interventions are extremely cost-effective, and font manipulations could be easily integrated into new printed and electronic educational materials at no additional cost to teachers, school systems, or distributors. Moreover, fluency interventions do not require curriculum reform or interfere with teachers’ classroom management or teaching styles. The potential for improving educational practices through cognitive interventions is immense. If a simple change of font can significantly increase student performance, one can only imagine the number of beneficial cognitive interventions waiting to be discovered. Fluency demonstrates how have the potential to make big improvements in the performance of our students and education system as a whole.
These studies suggest that choices in type can indeed have impact on things like memory retention and performance. Does this mean designers should change the way they design textbooks or academic literature? If so, what impact could cognitive fluency and disfluency have in other areas of design? With more studies emerging on the subject of cognitive fluency and disfluency in relation to visual communication, perhaps more evidence will reveal whether designers can and should design based on cognitive responses. Perhaps the next time you find yourself following a recipe for baking cookies and it's taking longer than you expect, you can blame the font.
Carole L. Yue, Alan D. Castel, Robert A. Bjork (2012). When Disfluency is–and is not–a desirable difficulty: The influence of Typeface clarity on Metacognitive Judgments and Memory.
Connor Diemand-Youman, Daniel M. Oppenheimer, Erikka B. Vaughan (2010). Fortune Favours the Bold and the Italicized: Effects of disfluency on Educational Outcomes.
Rolf Reber, Norbert Schwarz, Piotr Winkielman (2004). Processing Fluency and Aesthetic Pleasure: Is Beauty in the Perceiver's Processing Experience?
Hyunjin Song, Norbert Schwarz (2008). If It's Hard to Read, It's Hard to Do: Processing Fluency Affects Effort Prediction and Motivation.
Rolf Reber, Norbert Schwarz (1999). Effects of Perceptual Fluency on Judgments of Truth.
Adam L. Alter, Daniel M. Oppenheimer (Princeton University), Nicholas Epley (University of Chicago), Rebecca N. Eyre (Harvard University) (2007). Overcoming Intuition: Metacognitive Difficulty Activates Analytic Reasoning.
Hyejeung Cho, Norbert Schwarz (2006). If I Don't Understand It, It Must Be New: Processing Fluency and Perceived Product Innovativeness.
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