When making it hard for customers can be a good thing

When making it hard for customers can be a good thing

Can making life more difficult for your customers work to your advantage? In this world where keeping it simple is the mantra, is there an upside in doing the opposite?

So asked author and NYU Stern Associate Professor of Marketing, Adam Alter, in his presentation to Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre last Thursday, “When is Keeping it Simple, Stupid not the best approach?”

Drawing on a number of studies, Alter put forward the case that bursts of ‘artificial complexity’ can shake people out of their stupor. In a sense, the occasional wave in otherwise flat surf can force us to concentrate a little harder.

The key concept here is “disfluency”, deliberately interrupting the fluency with which people can understand information.

For example, Atler and his fellow researchers have shown that typeface that is more difficult to read forces the reader to focus (take Smartcompany in Arial vs Smartcompany in Haettenschwelle for instance). In one study participants were significantly more likely to answer a riddle correctly when the typeface was harder to read – either italicised, greyed out or condensed. 

Regular readers will recognise a couple of concepts from Behavioural Economics at play here.

System 1 v System 2

System 1 thinking is our fast processing brain that relies on mental short-cuts and intuition to come up with answers. This is our default setting that we rely on most of the day to navigate the world, our autopilot and the home of habitual thinking.  

System 2 thinking is our slow, methodical processing brain that takes charge when the situation is difficult or unfamiliar. It’s the part of us that snaps to attention when provoked or stimulated, much like those bumps the roads authority places on the edge so if you drift you hear and feel the vibration and your focus is returned.

Where System 1 has massive capacity, we switch into System 2 only sparingly because it chews up a lot of energy and can get drained very quickly.

Alter is suggesting that in order to get people to switch into System 2 we need to bump them out of System 1. And we can do that by making something difficult or unusual.

Hold your horses

But before you rush out and put all sorts of obstacles in the way of your customer, Alter was at pains to point out you should only add complexity in bursts at times when you need the customer to pay particular attention. 

Which brings me to the other key concept we’ve covered in this column.

Effort vs Reward

I talk a lot about the Effort:Reward equation where if effort exceeds reward, behaviour doesn’t happen. By increasing effort by deliberately making something harder – for instance having white font on a black background which causes the text to ‘flare’, impeding readability – we have to be sure that the reward for our customer’s perseverance is that much greater.

(To see that in action, revisit this article where I showcase how one iconic Australian organisation has got the equation wrong).

And this is the nuance that is so important to understand when using behavioural techniques. There’s a time and a place for adding complexity and you need to do so with an intended outcome in mind. Adding complexity for the sake of it is a sure way to lose customers.

Here’s how I have used complexity to engage customers.

While as a general rule white font on black should be avoided, particularly online, I use it myself in proposal documents. Where I need the reader to focus I include sections of text in white on black, whereas in other sections I use black on white to provide contrast and cognitive relief. In this way I have built in psychological texture to my materials rather than produce a flat and forgettable experience.

As Alter suggests, moments that grab people and force them to think twice can be a good thing if used judiciously. Here are my tips for when to use complexity:

  • You need to get your customer out of ‘status quo’ (more likely in acquisition than retention) 
  • You need them to take an active rather than passive decision (e.g. a health or financial choice they have to live with)
  • You have made the process of working with you simple so that the complexity is there to stimulate thinking rather than interfere with doing
  • Use it in small doses at key junctures only
  • Make sure the payoff is significantly greater than the effort

For more on disfluency and other forces that shape behaviour, check out Adam Alter’s best-selling book Drunk Tank Pink.

Bri Williams runs People Patterns, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues.


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