August 2019
Text by Alberto Ferreira

Image: © bimdeedee/

Alberto Ferreira is a user experience researcher and globalization services expert with over ten years of hands-on experience in UX on the client and agency side with some of the biggest companies in the world, including Sony, BBC, and Mars. He is the author of Universal UX: Building Multicultural Experience, and writes and speaks frequently on topics ranging from Agile to persuasion design.


Twitter: @SententiaWorld

Content and cognition: Writing for the human mind

Ever since the beginning of the technological age, sci-fi forecasts were quick to render the human mind obsolete. Psychology has since highlighted the role of emotion and cognitive biases in how people understand and consume content. Here are some strategies for how to speak to customers old and new – and to their brains.

Writing for the average user is a tricky affair. Unlike machines, our mind can only hold a very restricted amount of information. Ask somebody to tell you ten random single-digit numbers and try to repeat them. You will soon find that the more numbers you hear, the harder it is to remember the sequence of digits. Remembering anything beyond the first seven digits will be a Herculean task. This is our working memory in action, and its middling capacity also limits the number of individual words you can remember outside the context of a sentence.

Our working memory works along with our iconic memory, which stores everything we see, albeit very briefly and often with selective attention focus. These limits impose heavy constraints on the way we do digital design.

Take passwords, for instance. According to recent research by Panda Security, up to 52 percent of users reuse their passwords across different sites. Complex passwords are hard to remember and protect. With increased demands on security, companies have pushed users to adopt alternative methods, with fingerprint and facial recognition becoming standard methods of identification. This is an example of how user experience is trying to compensate for and alleviate cognitive stress, particularly as the number of stimuli is increasing every day.


The brain: friend and foe

How many decisions do you make per day? From which train to catch to the food you eat, every little act takes a decision. Researchers at Cornell University (2007) have estimated that on an average day, we make 227 decisions on food alone. Other sources point towards a total of 35,000 decisions taken every day.

Thinking is an intense process, consuming energy and resources that are already in short supply. Our mind usually takes shortcuts and adopts biases in order to respond quickly to unknown situations and minimize cognitive processing. This set of effort-saving strategies is typically labeled "cognitive biases", a term first introduced in the 1970s by social scientists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. Cognitive biases are mental shortcuts that are often systematic and devoid of reason (read more about cognitive biases on page 38). Combined with habit, they are one of the main drivers of digital behavior.

For example, consider the way people generally consume information on a website. Skimming (even when scrolling on mobile devices) is the default action here. Long-form reading requires attention, time, and effort – resources that are in great shortage these days. This partly explains Twitter’s success.

Recent studies have demonstrated that the brain is inherently selective in the amount of content it consumes, and seeks to reduce cognitive load by focusing our attention and reading direction on an F-shaped pattern (particularly in Western users) that avoids the bulk of the perceived non-essential text elsewhere on the page. Headers and large type receive the most attention, which works great in an online newspaper, but less so when the user is going through an insurance form with several T&Cs attached.

Therefore, the most effective structure for an article on a printed page emphasizes key points through titles, subtitles, and image captions. Images are the eye candy that draws attention to the text around them. The content on the page becomes easier to process with shorter paragraphs and a logical flow that reinforces the punchy nature of the headers.


Who are you writing for?

Research has shown that most of the time, an impulsive choice for a product is purely intrinsic and not significantly affected by advertising (Sofi & Nika, 2016). From an online perspective, for marketing purposes, the role of content is primarily to appeal to and connect with the reader's desires.

The best way to be engaging is to empathize with the users' needs. But the only way to understand these is to research the audience thoroughly. However, checking on content requirements can be tricky, particularly with companies that don’t have a human-centered approach.

The best strategy to overcome this is to conduct qualitative research. This type of research aims to uncover the hidden attitudes and motivations of customers through interviews and surveys. Interviews and focus groups help to understand the themes that appeal to your clients. Web analytics and A/B tests are also essential to uncover which copy can impact the user most effectively. A few words can have a disproportionate impact on conversion.


What's the story?

Storytelling is at the root of our content experience. Not because we want a story told in every single interaction with a brand or platform, but because aspects of storytelling help to build a sense of continuity and flow into our actions. This is partly why checking on social media notifications is so addictive. We want to see what happens next. We want to be entertained. We want to find closure.

Storytelling is also a masterful way to address morals, identity, and create a connection with the customer. Showcase, for example, the identity of founders, CEOs, team members, and the people picking up the phone. Don’t use "Established in 2014" as if it inherently means something. Tradition is not merely a factor to be stated, and the authority of time is not granted, but needs to be earned.

To apply storytelling in a persuasive way, one of the most often used frameworks is the triad of logos, ethos, and pathos developed by Aristoteles.

Ethos is largely associated with the ethical stance of the proposition you are conveying. One of the most frequently used strategies is to highlight companies you have worked with, awards you have won, or testimonials from satisfied customers. These sources should be realistic. No matter how many reliable sources you mention on your website, users will always search online for brand reviews and user forums. Conduct research on your brand’s SEO ranking and find out which search results can impact perception indirectly.

Logos is related to the rational side of judgement. Vague promises such as "Register to receive exclusive benefits" might be your only option if you do not have a clear USP to offer. However, users respond much better to a specific and realistic benefit such as a 5 percent discount or additional points.

Pathos is related to the empathetic side of the story, the sympathy aspect of establishing a definite emotional response. This is where the value proposition must be prominently placed. Authentic testimonials and loaded terms like "thrilling" and "outstanding" can work for the copy – but it can also backfire. Several studies have shown that being overenthusiastic about a rational subject actually decreases trust rather than build it.


Figure 1: The cognitive theory of multimedia learning is one of several models of how the brain processes information when presented with digital information.



Establish a relationship

Who are the people that call you by your first name? Most likely they are your partner, friends and family, and perhaps your colleagues at work. But how do you feel about an absolute stranger using your first name?

Overfamiliarity without context can be as off-putting as the strictest formality and establishes the undertone of the relationship with the brand. The right balance is delicate, but achievable. Speak to your customers as a soon-to-be friend. Establishing a connection with customers is difficult. Prospect fear is the key driver keeping people away. People might feel reluctant when faced with a new situation (be it online or in real life): the fear of being tricked, making the wrong choice, or being taken for a fool. Sales content is typically seen as high-risk – and our brain rejects it as such.

This means that everything on your site needs to show that your brand can be trusted. A combination of real contact information with photos of team members, thorough responses to FAQs, a lack of outlandish promises, clear calls to action, and other customer reviews are some of the more typical strategies used to clarify the proposition.


Cognitive overload

According to the Hootsuite Digital in 2019 report, social media has a total of 3.4 billion users, which matches a penetration of 45 percent of the world population. Social media is a distinctive way of reaching users, but the global trifecta of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram fulfill very different purposes in users' minds. A 2018 ComScore study found that users in nearly every country in the world spend by far the most time on Facebook (70-90 percent of total social media time). Instagram is growing and accounts for 10-20 percent of all social media time in most countries.  

As social media communication becomes more pervasive, so does its visual language. Every day, more than 350 million photos are uploaded to Facebook. Over 900 million emojis are sent without accompanying text on Facebook Messenger each day. One billion people use Instagram monthly. Copy can leverage this proliferation of visual content by including better structured content, color coding, emojis, and iconic imagery. A header becomes more memorable with an icon next to it.

Figure 2: The way our brain processes information relies on two different frameworks. System 1 is intuitive and immediate. System 2 is a parallel mode of information processing.


Mark Zuckerberg once famously said that "a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa." This is reflected in the self-serving online user behavior. It is in our nature to focus on our short-term interests rather than on the greater good. This also relates to the way people browse information online. There are two distinct modes to consider:

Flow-oriented: The user wants to be entertained. Tasks are open-ended and there is no specific goal. Normally, the user is particularly sensitive to visual content. A lot of the mental processing is pre-cognitive, which implies that the user is very vulnerable to simple trigger-rewards. This is the basis of the interaction models used by social media such as TikTok, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Task-oriented:  The user is trying to fulfill a purpose or complete a task. In this particular mode, the user is seeking efficiency in the process and is much more discriminating in terms of information processing.

Users in a flow-oriented mode are not able to remember individual elements of the page unless they are particularly memorable, and long texts are definitely not attractive as they require heavy cognitive power. This is particularly relevant for our current user experience requirements, as text skimming has become inherent to the digital experience. The use of simpler and more visual communication is essential to appeal to a wider audience.


Persuading and influencing

As the science of communication advances, so does the sophistication of the techniques we use to "nudge" behavior. Some of these techniques can also be applied to content. Here are some of the popular ones:


Scarcity is one of the most common strategies for persuasion and plays on limited access and the fear of missing out. The less there is of something, the more exclusive it becomes and the quicker it sells. It is the most common strategy in e-commerce, with the most common example akin to "only 2 left in stock".

However, scarcity's efficiency depends on how it is framed. A 2009 study by V. Griskevicius and colleagues tested ads for products that contained social proof ("over a million sold") and compared them with scarcity ("limited edition"). While fear made social proof more effective in situations where participants found a possibility of personal harm, participants in a more positive mindset privileged scarcity. The possibility of belonging to a million-user club was not as appealing. Everyone wants to be special. Studies have actually shown that scarcity can be the least persuasive technique in absolute numbers (Orji et al., 2010). The key recommendation for scarcity is to assuage the customers’ fears of missing out while clearly conveying the ultimate benefits.

Loss aversion

Imagine you are given two uncooked pizzas. One of the pizzas has only the dough and you are told to add any ingredients you would like. The other pizza comes with toppings and you are told to remove or replace any of them as you wish. Which of these pizzas would end up with more toppings? In the 2002 study "A Tale of Two Pizzas", researchers found that the pizzas that already had the toppings on were the ones that ended up with the most toppings.

The hypothesis here is that participants did not want to lose the toppings that were already given to them, regardless of whether they liked them or not. This is a bias commonly known as loss aversion and it is deeply related to the idea that consumers do not want to lose benefits they perceive as having already. For instance, there is a huge difference between:

"Only 3 days left on your free trial"


"Upgrade now to access the full feature set"

Loss aversion is not necessarily negative, depending on the context. In one-off cases with no long-term return, also called myopic loss aversion, it is, however, driven by fear. Gains and losses are closely connected to emotions of pleasure and pain. For example, surprise makes gains more pleasurable and losses more painful. In fact, losses are almost always compared with similar situations that occurred in the past.

In order to bypass this bias, people prefer to avoid losing something they already have, rather than winning something of the same perceived value. Some ways to address this include:


  • Mention the benefit at risk of being lost, then state the risk, including a proposed action such as "Act not wo use your 5% discount."
  • Use possessive pronouns ("your") to give the user a sense of ownership



The way you frame facts and figures can indirectly minimize cognitive biases. Research has shown that negative messages require more mental processing and have a less than ideal impact on comprehension (Jacoby, Nelson & Hoyer, 1982), as they increase stress and cortisol levels. Framing something in a positive light is more effective and more memorable. For instance, a 2018 Deloitte report claimed that 22 percent of consumers were "happy to share some data" in exchange for a more personalized customer service. Although this was framed positively in the report, the fact that only 22 percent are willing to exchange data for product targeting is actually quite telling, especially as it was left unclear what "some data" actually means. 

Therefore, the way you present information makes a huge difference. Express risks negatively, but present solutions in a positive light. Use simple figures.


Anchoring refers to the tendency to rely heavily on the first piece of information available when making decisions. The first piece of information is used to judge any of the data immediately following it. Exposure to a value or statement (even indirectly) will serve as a reference for other judgements. Users can also be influenced by anchoring prices to a high arbitrary price. A persuasive message with a price that is 50-75 percent higher than the cheapest price (or average price) can influence users.

Social proof

Social proof is one of the most commonly used online strategies. It falls into a pattern of social referencing, which deals directly with imitation – a basic mechanism for our development as a species. We look at social references to reinforce our beliefs and behaviors. Social proof is better when used for initial impressions (as in homepages) and moment-of-truth points when users have to make a decision that carries some risk. As far as possible, it should reflect real references in order to be more believable.


Bringing it all together

The most important part of integrating psychology in your content strategy and guidelines is to not expect a silver bullet. Behavior design and nudging are still in their infancy despite decades of research. As we understand the human brain better, we will become more effective in influencing human behavior through design patterns and words. However, this will only be valuable when addressing the fundamental objective of any technology to help us make the best of every day as a community and as individuals. This is where the integration of psychology into content can help, showing us how to better align with the minds of our users and reduce their stress and frustration.



Figure 3: Authority and social proof are two of the most powerful principles that can be used in validating users’ perceptions.


Figure 4: The need for closure and loyalty can be combined in order to make a proposition more interesting.