Every day, potential customers and clients make judgments about the products or services you provide based on the way you present them. For startups and new businesses, getting your brand right is hugely important for building customer loyalty and trust.

If you want to persuade a customer to do something—buy a product or request more information—it’s important not to confuse the way something seems to be for how it is. In psychology, this is known as cognitive fluency.

What is cognitive fluency?

By its most basic definition, cognitive fluency is the ease with which we process information to generate an understanding of what that information means. This ease or difficulty refers not only to the experience of a task or instruction itself, but the feeling people associate with that task.

Seemingly insignificant aspects of presentation can have surprising effects on customers’ perceptions and behaviour. If information is made to appear simple, we’re more naturally receptive to it. If it appears complex, we’re likely to be put off. In general, anything that affects the ease or difficulty of mental processing can—and does—affect people’s perception of your brand.

If you want to persuade a customer to do something, not only do you need to make that action as easy as possible, but you need to make it look easy too.

Names and cognitive fluency

Because of the psychology of cognitive fluency, brand names that are short and easy to pronounce will have a built-in advantage over brands with long, difficult names. In a book entitled Drunk Tank Pink, NYU Stern psychologist Adam Alter describes research that shows companies with fluent names generated higher returns in the stock market in short-term trading.

Creative business name marketers Novanym employ the science of cognitive fluency to evoke positive brand potential: their names have personality and originality—vital for creating a strong brand—but are easily processed too. The key, they explain, is to “focus on how a name feels, not what it means.”

That’s owed to the power of allusion. A name like ‘Clinivia’ doesn’t actually mean anything, which is its advantage—if you typed it into Google you’d likely only return perfect brand-match results—but in our minds, it evokes all sorts of medical and healthcare associations. That’s the key to a successful brand.

Aiming for originality is a good thing, but not at the cost of legibility. While a name like Flrimx might seem unique and quirky, how on earth do you say it? And will anyone remember how to spell it? For a brand name to stick in customers’ minds, there has to be a certain logic and comfort in the way the letters work together. If your brand is to succeed, keep it simple.

Fonts and cognitive fluency

Ease of pronunciation is just one aspect of cognitive fluency. If you want people to perceive something new as being easy, it’s important to consider how the information appears in print.

In a study published in Psychological Science, ‘If its hard read, its hard to do’, researchers from the University of Michigan presented a number of simple instructions in two fonts: one easy to read sans serif font, the other, a more difficult calligraphic font.

Participants were asked to estimate how long it would take to carry out the activity as instructed, and found that people transferred the difficulty of reading the instructions to perceptions of the task itself—those reading the simple font estimated the task would take on average 8 minutes to complete, while those reading the more difficult font assumed it would take almost double that time. The conclusion is that the ease with which we read instructions translates directly into how easy we think the task itself will be.

In a similar task, researchers asked participants to choose between two cordless telephone products, providing the specification for each product in either an easy to read font or a more difficult to read embossed, italicised grey font. They found that those asked to choose between the two devices based on information presented in an easy to read font deferred their decision in 17% of cases, while those subject to the information in a hard to read font postponed their choice in 41% of cases. They concluded that people attribute the difficulty of reading the information as a cue that the decision itself is difficult to make.

Design and cognitive fluency

The readability of text can also affect people’s perception of truth. In one study, researchers asked people to view unfamiliar statements in either light-coloured print or darker-coloured print. Because the print-to-background contrast was better with the darker print, resulting in better readability, people tended to rate those statements as more truthful.

In a 2012 study, Google uncovered that site visitors judge a website’s design within 50 milliseconds. The study also found that visually complex websites were consistently rated less beautiful than simpler sites, and that site visitors tended to favour websites that fit an “industry mold.” In other words, the more that a website generally adhered to a common category prototype of website layout, the more that people reacted favorably to the site.

Why? Perceptions of cognitive fluency are known as ‘attribution’. One person’s attribution of cognitive fluency can be totally different from another’s attribution, but commonly, that attribution is influenced by past experiences. The fluidity of cognitive processing causes your brain to attribute judgments of familiarity with understanding. It’s sometimes called the mere-exposure effect.

Cognitive fluency—or disfluency—plays a subtle, yet influential role in judgment and decision making. Research has shown that many aspects of design can impact fluency, or the feeling of mental effort—including the style and size of fonts, figure-to-ground contrast, wording and terminology, pronunciation, and more. One thing is clear: improve your cognitive fluency, and you’ll improve your conversion rate.