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We’ve all done it at some point — shop, bank online, browse articles or search for recipes ­— only to bail out in the end. Have you stopped to wonder why do people move on halfway through an article or abandon a purchase transaction they started? The answer may come as a surprise — our decisions to engage with an online activity are unconsciously influenced by environmental factors and not necessarily based on a person’s interest level.

Unconscious Processing

Whether browsing online, variables on screen subtly affect whether people decide to engage or not. To understand this phenomenon, we look to how our brain works.

The human brain has a limited amount of processing power – “brain power”. When faced with a task, it assesses whether or not that specific task will be difficult or time-consuming. It is determining the amount of effort required to interact with your product, based on cues from the immediate environment. If a task appears easy, and there’s enough “brain power” available to handle it, we’ll move forward with it. However, if the task appears cumbersome and the effort required exceeds our ability to handle it, we tend to skip it.

Unaware and automatic, people often rely on the fluency of cues to decide if the specific task is worth their time. Take, for example, the instructions below:

When presented in an easy-to-read font, readers assumed the task would take a short time to complete. However, when presented in difficult-to-read font, readers assumed the task involved more effort and take longer to complete. When in fact, both instructions were exactly the same.

As it turns out, research suggests that people equate difficulty of task with the amount of effort they feel a task involves.

Therefore, it is important to remember that environmental cues can affects people’s decision to think and act. Products should be designed accordingly.

People will prefer the quickest and easiest course of action

Things to consider:

Feeling overwhelmed is a very common reason people desert their online agenda. One way to alleviate this is to incorporate a clear visual system:

  • Select a clear and easy-to-read typeface;
  • Group similar information together;
  • Create visual hierarchy with colour-coding;
  • Provide ample white space;
  • Present information in smaller chunks for easier reading.

Other approaches to consider are:

  • Implement only features that people need;
  • Don’t clutter screens with complicated buttons or unnecessary animations;
  • Prompt or aid users along the way so they don’t have to remember things from one screen to another;
  • Keep tasks simple—avoid forcing users to multi-task.


The next time you design your company’s website or assess its effectiveness, keep in mind that people are unconsciously affected by environmental cues. People will prefer the quickest and easiest course of action to complete an online task. Decluttering and simplifying their online experience will greatly increase success with engagement. Design accordingly and with careful intent.