Humans have evolved to get comfortable with familiar things and experiences.
Humans find familiarity incredibly valuable. We have evolved over centuries to feel comfortable & safe in a familiar environment. Likewise, knowing how to operate a particular interface makes us feel comfortable and safe.
Good web design requires consideration of the cognitive (mental) demands of the users. While users may spend extended periods of time on the web, individual websites may not receive the same level of intensive and prolonged interaction.
Users spend most of their time on other websites and expect your website to work similarly.
They like websites which are intuitive, easy to navigate, simple to use and are aesthetically pleasing.
What is Familiarity?
Familiarity is an understanding, often based on previous interactions, experiences, and learning of what, why, where and when others do what they do.
For example, familiarity with Amazon.com – one of the major bookselling websites -would be in the knowing of how to search for books, gather information about them and order them. Familiarity in this context is a specific activity-based cognizance based on previous experience or learning how to use the particular interface. Users will expect the same process when they visit your website.
Familiarity reduces uncertainty by establishing a structure.
Familiarity is the people’s knowledge of a product or service based on their previous experiences and contacts. Accordingly, familiarity is defined as ‘the number of experiences related to a product that the consumer has accumulated over time’. Moreover, several studies conducted on individuals’ purchasing behavior reported that familiarity could significantly influence consumers’ decision-making processes.
Familiarity is a precondition for trust
People subjectively reduce uncertainty and simplify their relationships with others through familiarity. While familiarity indeed builds trust, it is primarily people’s disposition to trust that affects their trust on the website. As such, familiarity and trust are distinctly different. Familiarity deals with an understanding of other people’s current actions or objects, while trust deals with beliefs about the future actions of other people.
In using Amazon.com, familiarity would reduce complexity by understanding how to search and buy books through the site (structure of the interface) and the procedure involved (design of the interaction).
Though familiarity and trust are distinctly different, they are related. Trust in another person or organization is built when the other person or organization behaves according to one’s favorable expectations. Familiarity creates this background and is, therefore, ‘the precondition for trust’.
Familiarity lowers the cognitive load.
Familiarity with the website structure is a crucial factor in the effectiveness of a website. Familiarity lets users be aware of each move towards and reaching their goal. For example, using meaningful categories is an essential determinant of website’s ease of use and is necessary for effective e-commerce. A cognitive explanation for this is that users spend some of their limited processing capabilities on navigation that otherwise can be used to consume the content.
Over a period of time, our perceptions form familiarity.
It is important to note that familiarity is strongly associated with perception. And our perceptions are formed or significantly influenced by our expectations in a particular situation.
We perceive what we expect to perceive. Our expectations and, therefore, our perceptions are biased. These biases come from our past experiences, the current context and the goals we seek to achieve.
The past: our experience
The sketch ( By R. C. James) below shows how priming of the mind can affect perception.
What do you see? A random sprinkling of ink.
What if I told you it’s a dog sniffing the ground near a tree. Does your visual system re-organize the image into a different sketch? Do you also notice that it is difficult to see the sketch as a random collection of ink once your mind has recognized the Dog?
Users of websites often click buttons or links without looking carefully at them. Instead, they act based on their past experiences rather than what they see on the screen.
While browsing, we form a habit of going to the next page by clicking the right button, and when we reach the last page, we don’t notice the change and click without thinking.
A corollary to the same effect is when users browse a website, they look for a familiar way of browsing or interacting with your content. If you show your input field on a contact form differently from what a user is accustomed to seeing, the user may miss this altogether.
The present: the current context
The context always drives our perception. We don’t look at letters as a collection of lines or symbols. We derive the meaning in totality. In this sense, context decides the meaning.
The example below illustrates the point.
How we identify the characters depends upon the context.
The future: our goals
Additionally, goals and plans which we seek to achieve also affect our perception significantly. We tend to filter out things unrelated to our goals subconsciously. Unrelated items don’t even get noticed by our conscious mind.
When users visit a website to do a particular task or seek information, they do not read the full content carefully. Instead, they scan screens quickly and superficially for items that seem related to their goal. They don’t simply ignore things unrelated to their goals; they often don’t even notice them.
Our goals drive our perceptions by dominating our senses. For example, if you are intensely engaged in conversation with someone in a party/crowded place, your mind filters out surrounding chatters.
This filtering also happens when users visit a website.
You may miss an important notification as you are focused on something else.
The selective perception happens because the human mind is designed to focus on relevant information/ visuals and ignore/blur the rest. Magicians use this to their advantage.
So, for example, if we are looking for a “blue” car in a parking lot, blue cars seem to pop out as we scan the parking lot; cars of other colors are not even noticed by our mind, even though, in a sense, we do see them.
Website Design Implications
While displaying any information on your website, you must
- Avoid ambiguity
- Be consistent
- Understand the goals of your users and enable them
For example, a computer displays BUTTONS.
Make your information control consistent. For example, make your buttons look the same and place them in the exact location throughout the website.
Spend time with users to understand the goals they seek to achieve.
Realize that users’ goals may vary and that their goals strongly influence what they perceive. Therefore, ensure that the information users need at every point in an interaction are consistent, clear and unambiguous.
Lastly, when in doubt follow the standards. Keep your interface familiar and simple.