Discover the Real Why Behind the Buy

Discover the Real Why Behind the Buy

Ease. Simplicity. Convenience. The essence of purchase decisions. Learn about processing fluency, removing friction and improving readability.

The likelihood of a shopper becoming a consumer is significantly influenced by how easy or hard it is to think about the products they are interested in. Quite simply, an easy thought process leads to sales; a difficult one turns clients away. 

What is Processing Fluency? 

The perception of easy or hard is known as Processing Fluency, a cognitive bias which can be defined as a measure of how easy it is to think about something. Processing Fluency changes how your potential customers think about their potential purchases - it is instrumental in their decision making.

What’s more, most of your shoppers have little to no awareness of the hold that Processing Fluency has over them, meaning that they subconsciously make a decision about whether to purchase an item based purely on the level of difficulty it takes to understand the item, not whether they actually like the item! 

Let’s start by looking at a research example: Robert Zajonc found that the more a group of people were exposed to certain words, patterns, or images of faces, the more they liked them, regardless of their initial perceptions. His research identified what we now know as the Mere Exposure Effect - the notion that something ‘can grow on us’ the more we see or hear it, simply because mentally processing the information is more fluent.

From a retail perspective, the more times shoppers are exposed to certain products and their advertising, the faster they can mentally process them and subsequently, but mistakenly, the more they like them. 

If you want your shoppers to adopt a new product, it’s important to consider how easily they will be able to mentally process information about it.

Researchers have found that when Processing Fluency is eased, shoppers are more likely to make judgments and decisions based on their emotional reaction. However, when Processing Fluency is made more difficult, they are more likely to adopt a rational evaluation, often talking themselves out of a purchase.

On occasions, it can good to get shoppers to slow down and pay attention; for example, when we want to ‘snap them out of autopilot’, but on the whole, you need to make their experience as fluent as possible to maximise purchases.

Are your products familiar to your clients?

Processing Fluency goes hand in hand with familiarity, a strong motivator of shopper behaviour. In short, shoppers like things that are familiar because they don’t require as much mental effort as things that are new and different. Familiarity with an item contributes to Processing Fluency, meaning your shoppers will like it more, interact with it more, trust it more and ultimately be more inclined to purchase it.

Let’s take a look at another example: when researchers presented participants with the names of hypothetical food additives and asked them to judge how harmful they might be, people perceived additives with names that were hard to pronounce as being more harmful than those with names that were easier to pronounce.

Participants associated ease or difficulty of pronunciation with an assumption about familiarity. When the pronunciation seemed easy, people assumed it was because they’d previously encountered the additive and had already done the mental work of processing information about it. Since it seemed familiar, they assumed it was safe.

Ease of pronunciation is just one of many aspects of Processing Fluency. 

How can readability influence shoppers?

It’s not only familiarity which can ease Processing Fluency and influence a shopper’s behaviour; the visual appearance of an item can drastically alter their perception too. In particular, shoppers are greatly influenced by their ability to actually read the text on an item or advertisement.

In one study, researchers even found that shoppers associated distrust with fonts which were difficult to read! 

Key factors of readability include:

  1. Font choice
  2. Font size
  3. Colour contrast
  4. Spacing 
  5. Punctuation 

In short, a dark coloured text on a light coloured background results in the easiest readability. Try it for yourself - compare the success of supermarket special offers consisting of red text on a black background to white text on a red background. I’m certain you will find the latter much more successful because the messages are more legible; they are easier to process.

In another study, researchers asked participants to read instructions on how to do an exercise routine. They presented the instructions in two different fonts; one that was easy to read and another that was more difficult to read.

When participants were asked to estimate how long it would take to actually perform the exercise routine, they anticipated that it would take almost twice as long to do the exercise when reading the difficult font, compared to the easier font. With the font that was easy to read, they also assumed that the exercise routine would flow more naturally and were, therefore, more willing to incorporate it into their daily activities.

In this study, participants were misattributing the difficulty of reading the instructions to the task itself. This demonstrates the power of readability on Processing Fluency and how it can influence purchase decisions.

So, what can you do to ensure optimum shopping experiences? 

It is without a doubt that Processing Fluency is heavily influenced by familiarity and readability which play instrumental roles in product evaluation and purchase decision making. 

Choose a product you stock and assess it against the following criteria:

  1. Is the font easy to read?
  2. Is the font size large enough?
  3. Do the colours work in harmony or is the contrast too harsh?
  4. Is the lettering adequately spaced for easy reading?
  5. Does the punctuation
  6. Is there too much/too little text? 
  7. Is the imagery appropriate? 

Most importantly, think from a shopper’s perspective. Bear in mind those potential consumers who are a lot less familiar with the products you offer and don’t over-explain; keep things simple to ease Processing Fluency.

You might also want to read up on how Multi-Sensory Experiences can influence shoppers’ decisions.

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About Phillip Adcock

My name is Phillip Adcock: I have more than 30 years of human behavioural research and analysis, and have developed a unique ability to identify what it is that makes people psychologically and physiologically 'tick'.

Would you like to know more about how shoppers and consumers think? Download my FREE guide now. Alternatively, check out, where there are more FREE downloads available there. Or why not simply email me with what's on your mind?

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Phillip Adcock

Phillip Adcock CMRS
Psychology & Behaviour
Change Consultant

Phillips Signature

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