Making Information Hard to Process Could Benefit Businesses

Jan 2, 2014

Elise Chandon Ince

Virginians will likely spend some time over next few weeks getting their paperwork together to complete their taxes.  And if you’re thinking about having someone else do your taxes,  new research says tax preparers and other service providers can sometimes benefit by making information about their services hard to read.

For the past half century, marketing literature has suggested using simple words and easy-to-read fonts on ads and other material to entice customers, but Virginia Tech assistant professor Elise Chandon Ince says her research is shining a new light on the subject.

“There are situations, which are not the majority of the situations, but in certain situations, maybe clarity is not the key.”

For instance, subjects in a 2008 study read written instructions on how to do an exercise routine and were then asked some questions.  They judged the exercise to be difficult and were less willing to perform it when psychology researchers simply changed the font to one that made it more difficult to read. 

Chandon Ince and her colleague Debora Thompson from Georgetown University wanted to take the research one step further.  If consumers thought a task was too difficult, would they hire someone to do it for them? So they conducted an experiment using ads for tax preparers, real estate agents, and other services. 

“If the information was slightly more difficult to read, you would think that the task itself was more difficult so you have to be really competent and skillful to do my taxes.  So if you think that the agent is more skillful, you’ll be more willing to pay more for that service.”

In other words, making the customer work a little more to get the information could benefit the company.  For instance, if you want to sell chocolates for a special occasion, she suggests putting the boxes just out of reach where the customer has to make an effort to select them. 

“Or making the name of the chocolates more special, more difficult, then they will appear more unique.”

But Ince says that method doesn’t always work in the company’s favor.  If you’re flipping through ads looking for a realtor or tax preparer, you’ll likely skip the ads that are difficult to process.

“But once you’re focused on that website, so once you’re really involved in the task, then making it slightly more difficult to read might be beneficial.”

And she’s not talking about using complex words.  She’s talking about something as subtle as changing the font from Arial to Cursive. 

“We also manipulated the background where you have a blue font over a light background; you have to focus a little bit more to see the words.”

The only drawback, Ince says, is when the customer knows why the company is making its information harder to process, it’s lost its competitive edge.  She and Thompson also conducted a study to see if the subjects got a positive impression of the service provider just from reading their ad. 

“When the ad is a little bit more difficult to read, you think the real estate agent is more competent, however, you don’t like him or her as a person as much.”

But she says it may not matter if you like them or not because you just want them to do a good job.  They also compared easy and difficult to pronounce last names such as Brown and Schiefelbein.

“And we found that if a person has a more difficult to pronounce last name, they look more competent, but they are not liked as much.”

According to Ince, the balance between being competent and being liked also applies to businesses.

“If you’re a .com or a .org, “The for-profit businesses usually appear competent but are not very much liked, whereas the nonprofit .org, they don’t appear very competent to start with but they appear as warm businesses.”

“It’s not only what you think but how you think that impacts your judgment.”