How do you react when you see a very complex diagram or a screen of dense text? Are you motivated to work through it? Or do you groan and turn away if it becomes too difficult?
If you’re like most people, you’ll experience negative feelings when you come across information that looks obtuse. You’ll think the content isn’t valuable or worth your effort. It’s all related to processing fluency, which refers to the ease with which a person processes information.
The visual clarity of your content affects processing fluency. It impacts how easy the materials are to use and comprehend. Much fascinating research has been done to better understand the effects of processing fluency, which should be of great interest to learning experience designers.
Is it easy to process?
Research shows that the ease with which a person processes information—known as processing fluency—has a strong impact on the outcome of the processing (Wanke & Hansen, 2015). Fluency affects a person’s judgment and decision making—whether it’s a screen design, a magazine article or a page in a textbook. In other words, people have positive feelings about visuals and verbiage when they are easy to perceive and process. Furthermore, people are more likely to experience aesthetic pleasure from something when processing is easy.
This has strong implications for learning, because of the impact positive or negative feelings have on motivation, comprehension and retention. Here are a few insightful examples from the research. Then draw your own conclusions.
Easy to Read, Easy to Do
Want to learn a new exercise? Read the instructions on the right. Does the exercise at the top seem easy to follow? And does the exercise at the bottom seem difficult to do?
When study participants were given these easy-to-read instructions at the top, they thought the exercise wouldn’t take much effort and that they could fit it into their schedule.
When the exact same instructions were displayed in a typeface that was difficult to read (shown at the bottom), participants thought the exercise would be difficult to perform and would take almost twice as long to get through. (Song and Schwarz, 2008).
The high processing fluency of the instructions at the top carried over to the participants’ judgment of the exercise itself.
Incidental Factors Affect Emotions
Researchers found similar results in a study using recipes. The easy-to-read recipe was thought to take less time and skill to prepare—it was something participants could handle by themselves. On the other hand, the exact same recipe in a less legible format influenced participants to think the recipe would require more skill and time to prepare. They were less willing to think they could manage it themselves.
The bottom line is that incidental factors beneath the level of awareness affect the emotional experience of the viewer. People may be aware of the experience of ease or difficulty, but are unaware of what causes these feelings.
Easy to Perceive, Must Be True
Now here’s one more. In another study, participants read easy-to-read and difficult-to-read statements using color contrast as the variable. Subjects were more likely to consider the very legible statements (blue or red text on a white background) to be true than the statements that were difficult to read (light blue and yellow against a white background). (Reber and Schwarz, 1999). When people have an absence of knowledge about a topic, they must use other factors to evaluate whether statements are true.
Lessons for eLearning
This research clearly points to the value and significance of effective visual design for creating positive learning experiences. In particular, visual clarity should be a guiding principle in any design. To achieve visual clarity, consider these findings from other research on processing fluency and aesthetics.
- People prefer prototypical and familiar stimuli over highly unusual examples. What’s familiar is easier to process.
- People value symmetry more than non-symmetry, particularly vertical symmetry.
- High contrast between the foreground and background makes a graphic easier to process and makes text more readable when compared with low contrast.
- Visual clarity creates an effortless experience, which is preferred during learning over experiences that are highly effortful.
- People prefer less information over more information. (But we already knew that.)
Get the latest articles, resources and freebies once a month
plus a Visual Design Checklist.
1. Song, H. & Schwarz, N. (2008). If it’s hard to read, it’s hard to do: Processing fluency affects effort prediction and motivation. Psychological Science, 19, 986–988.
2. Reber, R. & Schwarz, N. (1999). Effects of perceptual fluency on judgments of truth. Consciousness and Cognition, 8, 338–342.
3. Reber, R., Schwarz, N. & Winkielman, P. (2004). Processing fluency and aesthetic pleasure: Is beauty in the perceiver’s processing experience? Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8, 364–382.
4. Wanke, M. & Hansen. (2015). Relative Processing Fluency. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 4.3, 195–199.