The Power of Cognitive Fluency in Web Design Psychology

Cognitive Fluency
Cognitive fluency influences what people think of your website design and their ability to trust your brand

How fast we process information in our brain, influences the things we like and trust. This includes web design and Cognitive fluency – also known as processing fluency or simply fluency – has a profound effect on the speed at which a brain can process information.

In this article, we’re going to dive into all things Cognitive fluency including what processing fluency is, why it matters when it comes to web design and how you can use it to get more conversions.

Psychology of Art and Cognitive Fluency

Art psychology is the study of how people feel when they look at art.

One of the first people to apply psychology to art was Heinrich Wölfflin.

Wölfflin was heavily inspired by Wilhelm Worringer, who in 1925 had his book entitled The Psychology of Art published.

In The Psychology of Art, Worringer argues that artists are able to evoke emotion through expressionism and how art has meaning in the mind.

Wölfflin wanted to show that architecture could also be understood from a purely psychological point of view.

Fast forward to now, the principles of art psychology encompasses web design, ad creatives and creative copywriting by examining the psychological effects that it has on the viewer/reader’s mental state.

What is Cognitive Fluency?

Cognitive Fluency (also known as Processing Fluency) is how quickly and easily our brain processes new information.

This term was coined by psychologist Robert Zajonc, who found that people tend to trust messaging when it is easy to understand.

In other words, people prefer stimuli that are familiar to them and conform to their expectations.

How this applies to web design and conversion rate optimization is through two key techniques:

The psychology of message matching

The UK government’s response to the Coronavirus pandemic was not as effective as they had hoped.

The message of their public safety marketing campaign changed from ‘Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives’ to ‘Stay alert, control the virus, save lives’.

This created confusion and caused people to become more worried about the pandemic than before.

This was led to two key problems for the UK government:

  • People became less likely to obey their advice
  • Those who didn’t follow their advice ceased obeying other rules such as wearing masks or avoiding public transport

This demonstrates how easy it is for people to lose their trust in an organisation when the message that they’re used to is switched to something that doesn’t match their expectations.

How this is related to web design is the conversion rate optimization technique called Message Matching and its relationship to Cognitive Fluency.

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When designing a website UX, landing page or ad campaign that sends traffic to your website, it is very important that the title of the webpage is exactly the same as the headline of the advertisement or social media post headline linking to it.

Similarly, should the advertisement use images and branding, then the images and branding must match those on the destination page.

Capital letters and cognitive fluency

capital letters and cognitive fluency
A good example of a website using all capital letters in a pop-up.

I once knew an author who described capital letters as the most important thing in the world.

They’re all capitals which makes them stand out from everything else… They’re what you use to emphasize words when you yell at somebody.

He was one of those creative types who convinced himself that what he was sharing was entirely profound and a spiritual awaking in literacy.

Thirdly, they make your sentences seem more important and intelligent-sounding because smart people always use capital letters to show how much smarter THEY are than everyone else!

Later that evening he was mauled by a Great Dane.


Words and sentences that are written entirely in capital letters are more difficult for our brain to process.

As noted earlier in this article, cognitive fluency and the length of time that it takes for the brain to process information has a profound effect on if we like a design and if we trust the information on a webpage.

In fact, there are many different examples of research carried out into the psychology cognitive fluency.

Capital letters and cognitive fluency

Cognitive Fluency and Capital Letters

Believe it or not, road signs in the United States and the United Kingdom are a strong example of the relationship between capital letters and Cognitive Fluency.

Historically, road signs in both countries were written in all capital letters (fun fact for trivia night).

This was later changed to a capital first letter followed by lower-case letters due to the increased processing speed and cognitive fluency that drivers had when reading the road signs.

Interestingly, many landing pages and email newsletters try to grab a reader’s attention with titles written in all capital letters.

However, research into capitalization has shown that while these headlines are more eyecatching, they cause our brains to slow down resulting in us disliking the design and not trusting the information presented.

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And as we both know… You don’t cross a brain that’s forced to slow down.

Compare these headlines:


Buy this 52-inch ultra-HD Panasonic TV for as little as $299.99

While the first headline stands out on the page, we are less likely to act because, in comparison to the second headline, it takes our brain much longer to process the information. Therefore we do not trust the information in the first headline.

This means that if the titles on your website are in all capitals, then due to Cognitive Fluency, you should experiment with lower-case letters.

Schemas, Cognitive Fluency and Web Design

When you see a website, you form an impression of it and the brand it represents.

If that impression is positive, then you’re likely to find the website easy to use and navigate. The easier it is for your brain to process information, the more favourably you’ll judge it and the brand.

One way to make your website more cognitive fluent is by using “schemas.”

No, we’re not talking about Schemas used by Google to know what your website is about.

Instead, we’re talking about mental patterns that psychology calls schemas.

If you’ve ever ordered flowers online, then your brain has a floral shopping schema that subconsciously tells you what to expect from such websites.

It tells you where the product options are most likely to be, what sort of images to expect and what sort of product description to expect.

When your customers visit your website for the first time, they’ll try to find matches between your site’s pages and their internal schemas—and they’ll judge how well the site works based on whether those matches exist or not.

Visual priming and web design

A related concept to schemas is visual priming, which refers to how we make judgments about things based on what we see at first glance.

Research in this field has proven that people tend to think favourably about things when appearances match their expectations.

In other words, if people expect a website to be easy to use and visually appealing, they’ll like it more if those things are in fact true.

This also extends to a website’s performance. As demonstrated in this conversion rate optimization case study, consumers expect a website to load on devices within 3-seconds (or less).

By simply speeding up the website so that it matched the visitor’s expectations for page speed, conversion rates leapt.

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This is important to remember because one of the most important goals of web design is to create a positive first impression.

This is due to people being more likely to make a purchase or become a lead when they trust a website.

One way to use visual priming to create a positive impression is by using layout principles that communicate authority and reliability.

  • Use plenty of white space around your content to make it look clean and organized, clearly display telephone numbers, physical address, security badges and more
  • Use headlines, typography and images to create a coherent visual theme (aka branding)
  • Make sure that your website’s design and functionality is consistent with people’s expectations formed from past experiences when using similar websites. For example, if your website sells flowers, it’s important to use images and designs that are associated with flowers. This will help people form a positive schema about your site, which will make them more likely to buy from you.

Website animations equal poor conversion rates

Research into cognitive fluency and web design has found that when people’s expectations are violated, they often react negatively.

One of the most common ways to violate people’s expectations is by using too much animation and motion on your website.

Studies have shown that excessive animation can actually cause people to feel anxious and overwhelmed.

It can also be distracting and interfere with people’s ability to focus on the task at hand.

So it’s important to use design consistency throughout your website and to use animation sparingly. (only when it genuinely contributes to the website user experience)

Simple websites sell more, quicker

In general, it’s a good idea to try to keep your website simple and easy to understand.

This will make web design more cognitive fluent, and as a result, more favourable in the eyes of your audience.

Remember to use clear and concise text, limit the number of graphics and animations on a web page, and stick to layouts that are visually familiar.

By following these tips, you can create a website that is not only aesthetically pleasing but also easy for your visitors to use…

And it all has to do with web design psychology and cognitive fluency.


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