How to make your website feel more intuitive?

October 7, 2021

This is an era of speed. New technologies such as SmartPhones, Internet, Artificial Intelligence and Cloud Computing have both quickened the pace of life and enabled wealth creation, efficiency and freedom.

Website designs too have started to reflect this modern, rational ethos. A great ‘cleaning’ has begun, in which the most intricate or baroque designs are getting replaced with cleaner, simpler-looking and intuitive versions.

While minimalism has been a strong trend in website design, there is always a counter-pressure on designers to include as much information as possible. Designers face a conundrum, whether to make their designs simple and easy to understand or more complex and detailed to make them more interesting and involving. Another related conundrum is whether designs should be intuitively familiar and expected or unfamiliar and disruptive.

This article is about ways to resolve these conundrums.

Our brain likes Novel ideas and designs, but only up to an extent.

Raymond Loewy, the father of industrial design proposed a design principle called MAYA : Most Advanced Yet Acceptable. It is the idea that the average consumer has expectations of what things should look like, which are developed over a period of time through exposure to products and services.

Humans are attracted to novelty; we get a small brain-buzz by seeing new things. This applies to the website design as well. Yet, if you push consumers far beyond what they are ready for, this can backfire. It’s about finding the right balance.

There are obviously many different aesthetic styles that appeal to different individual tastes at different times and places. But there is something timeless and universal about the appeal of minimalistic designs. Our brain has a natural liking for designs that are easy to process.

The brain is only a small part of our body mass, but it takes up a lot of energy. So, it has evolved to minimize the amount of energy it uses – optimizing its processing power.

Our brain works similar to a computer. When given too much to process, it becomes slow. While our non-conscious mind is continuously processing and sorting millions of bits of incoming sensory information, our conscious mind can only hold a few things in our awareness at a given time. In Psychology it is usually referred to as Cognitive load.


When people are browsing through websites, looking at Ads or a product, they don’t want to consciously think too hard. They search for a quick way to make a decision. People are particularly impatient online and will lean towards designs that give them quick, easy and intuitive routes to what they are seeking. Simple and easy to process designs are preferred over complex designs. Psychologists call this ‘Processing Fluency’.

Interestingly, we are largely unaware of our tendency to feel good about designs that are easy to process even though we can be aware of how easy or hard it feels to understand something. In the background our brain is monitoring how hard things are to process.

Eating up more space people’s cognitive load should be a sin for any designer. Understanding a page or task should be made as simple as possible. The art of making complex information easy to process with the use of clever and intuitive design will become increasingly important, especially online.

The mere exposure effect and our preference for familiarity

In general, we feel comfortable with things and people we know. We humans have evolved to live in small groups, and bonds and trust were built between those whose faces we were familiar with. We carry this preference while evaluating products and websites as well.

Psychologist Robert Zajonc, described this preference in his classic 1968 research paper as “the mere exposure effect “. In summary : People seem to like images/designs which they have been exposed to more often. This means that there is a non-conscious, non-rational mechanism in our brain that can lead us to like something completely independent of any logic. We humans are illogical and irrational creatures – more than what we believe to be.


Images with faces of people we know are easy to process. However, it is now believed that it is not only exposure or familiarity per se that causes this preference. It is the fact that the more we see something, the easier it becomes to process. The processing fluency is what matters. The “Mere Exposure Effect “ is just a result of our inbuilt preference to optimize for processing fluency.


How our brain decodes and processes a design

Laura Graf and Jan Landwehr have proposed a new model, ‘the pleasure & interest model of aesthetic liking’ or PIA in short. This model helps us understand; how we judge images or designs both consciously and unconsciously. Simply stated: This model proposes that whether we will like an image or design depends upon two things: First, whether we feel that it is easy to process and second, how we then (if we are interested enough) think about it.

When we look at a design, we categorize them as fluent or disfluent. If we feel unmotivated to put more effort into understanding it, we stop. However, if we begin to pay more attention – either the design triggers curiosity in us or we find it intellectually stimulating and worthy of exploration.

The important idea is that the default way that people judge a design is with a feeling of visual fluency. It is only if they become motivated to learn more, mental resources are allocated to explore it.


Understanding visual fluency

Simple designs can convey a rich meaning using little graphical details. Such designs/images are considered fluent. In fact, deeper meaning can be conveyed with the simplest of shapes. For example, look at the image below; it explains herd immunity using simple shapes.


Fluency has two dimensions-

Perceptual: An image or design can be fluent because of its visual characteristics.

Conceptual: An image or design can be fluent because it conveys the meaning.

When put together, they define how people will feel about a particular design or image. Designs with higher levels of meaning can trump images that are merely simple. So for a minimalistic design to be effective, it should not be trivial but rather rich in information.


The Fluency Matrix

Simple designs are not always interesting and complex designs are not always easy to process. The right combination of the two is what makes a design easy to process and interesting. One way to understand this is mapping a design’s surface complexity i.e. how much graphical elements and informational content it contains.

By mapping these on two axes we get the Fluency Matrix.


Let’s explore the four quadrants with examples.


This type of design is simple to grasp but hardly conveys any meaning. There is nothing exciting about them and we simply find them ordinary



This type of design has a lot of graphical details, but no meaning or pattern behind them. Visually they are noisy and they appear random and effortful to process. We just find them confusing.



This type of design conveys a lot of information. We find them hard to process and success of such a design depends on the motivation of the viewer. A user can get confused and lost.



This type of design is ideal. They are easy to visually decode and they look simple but are able to convey a lot of meaning. We find them interesting.


Novelty and complexity can lead to user engagement

Making designs simple is not always the only way to get users engaged. Evidence shows that sometimes users find complex or novel designs engaging. Novelty encompasses many pleasurable feelings. Yet novelty being the opposite of familiarity can make designs disfluent. So does novel designs get users engaged? What are the other factors that can lead to liking of novel designs?

One of the factors is that conceptual fluency is more important than perceptual fluency. Novel designs can be appreciated by viewers if it carries a lot of meaning that is easy to decode. If paying attention to such designs unlocks meaning, our hungry brain gets some cognitive snack.

If we expect something to be hard to understand, but if it is presented to us in a way that makes it easy to understand, we like it. The thing is that how complex we perceive a design depends upon our expectation of the same. Designs that are unexpectedly easy to process seem familiar to our brain. The connection between novelty and familiarity is defined by fluency; ease of processing.

People either prefer simpler than expected designs or designs that convey a large amount of information in a surprisingly minimalistic way.

Our brain is a pattern seeking machine – When it finds one it becomes easy to process

Look at the image below, which one do you find easy to process and remember? The left image doesn’t have a pattern hence it is difficult to remember compared to the right one. In the case of the right image, our brain doesn’t need to memorize all random placements of grid – it has a clear pattern.


Our brain is always in search of a short-cut to understand the vast number of sensory inputs it gets. It stores generalized patterns from experience. Matching what we see to the general visual memory pattern helps our lazy brain save energy.


In computer science the compressibility of visual patterns is measured as Kolmogorov Complexity (KC) . In theory an image could have a lot of visual details, but if it has order or repeatability, it will have low KC. Low KC designs are easy to process and hence are fluent.


Low complexity designs may look complex at first glance but they adhere to underlying regular patterns that are compressible. This makes them intriguing as our brain senses the patterned information they contain.

Making your website design fluent will make it beautiful & intuitive

Minimalistic design is about finding the simplest, least energy- consuming solution to conveying information or explaining a concept. Our brain is actively seeking to compress our models of the world down to simple rules. Like scientists and mathematicians, who find simple equations, which describe complex concepts elegantly beautiful.

Making your design fluent will make it likable and beautiful.

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As we have now completed the first part of the article, let’s move on to a couple of UX design best practices.