Familiar is easy is ‘true’

The success of easy-to-read fonts and familiar sentences may have psychological reasons – and far-reaching consequences for professional writers.

The Boston Globe recently ran a piece by Drake Bennett called “Easy = True“: According to psychologists, people are more likely to perceive something as true when it’s familiar and hence easy to think about. The underlying measure is called “cognitive fluency”. (Now, I’ve never heard of that, and it seems so incomprehensible, I don’t think it’s true… 😉 ). It’s not so much the principle that’s the big news, but rather its effects.

Clear and Easy

For the written word, this means:

… when presenting people with a factual statement, manipulations that make the statement easier to mentally process – even totally nonsubstantive changes like writing it in a cleaner font or making it rhyme or simply repeating it – can alter people’s judgment of the truth of the statement, along with their evaluation of the intelligence of the statement’s author and their confidence in their own judgments and abilities.

Of course, writing that’s clear and easy to understand has long been a standard objective of technical writers. It’s simply more efficient and lets our users get on with their tasks.

But apparently, there are additional effects: Documentation can shape users’ opinion of a product and its manufacturer (my employer, that is). ‘Clear and easy’ documentation is seen as truthful, the product as reliable and the manufacturer as professional. The inverse seems true, too: As the medium is the message, readers struggling with obscure fonts “unwittingly transfer that sense of difficulty onto the topic they’re reading about.”

Confident and Alert

‘Clear and easy’ documentation can also increase user confidence in product which can in turn contribute to a product’s success. (For more on boosting user onfidence, check out Kathy Sierra’s brilliant “Kick Ass Curve” that shows how to overcome the “Suck Threshold”.)

Studies also make a case for texts that are not clear and easy: If you want readers to be alert and attentive and “to prevent them from making silly mistakes, make them work to process the question: make the font hard to read, the cadence awkward, and the wording unfamiliar.” – The example relies on answers to inconsequential test questions, so I’m not ready to apply this to writing obscure warning and danger notes just yet…

What do you think? Is this a new and applicable insight – or merely science catching up with industry practice?