The power of simplicity

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

~ Albert Einstein

The power of simplicity cannot be underestimated. Whether it’s an email communication, website design, or instructions on how to set up your new washing machine, we want things simple — not too simple to the point of insulting, but not too complex that it becomes confusing.

This dovetails with one of the key principles of Behavioural Science — if you make things easy, people are far more likely to do it — and is one of the pillars of the EAST framework developed by the UK-based Behavioural Insights Team to encourage effective behavioural approaches. EAST stands for Easy, Attractive, Social, and Timely.

Note: Professor Cass Sunstein later added to this framework making it FEAST, with the “F” standing for Fun.

Let’s look at some examples to show how simplifying a process or task can lead to better outcomes.

Take the jam experiment conducted at Stanford and Columbia University. They displayed a table of 24 jams and then 6 jams and observed how many people sampled the jams and then bought them. When there were less options (therefore making the decision easier), more jams were bought.

What about organ donation? Research found that when becoming an organ donor was the default option, so opt out as opposed to opt in, there was a significant increase in donors. This is because we have a strong tendency to go with the default or pre-set option, since it is easy to do so.

During the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown restrictions, grocery shopping has become difficult, and, at times, dangerous. Enter Checkers Sixty60. A simply-designed grocery app which delivers your items within an hour, charges a minimal admin fee, and saves your shopping list for future orders. Checkers Sixty60 has been “eating competitors’ lunch” as it makes life easier for the end user.

This principle applies to language too.

“Dumbing down” your communication may seem counterintuitive as many of us have grown up thinking that the more convoluted you sound, the smarter you must be. It is, in fact, quite the opposite. The Behavioural Insights Team conducted dozens of trials with Government departments to find ways of increasing engagement with important forms and letters. Findings showed that by making these documents really easy to understand, they could increase the response rates by 5-10% — usually because the main request and language was made clearer.

There are many ways to simplify your messaging, we’ll highlight just a few that we have found useful when crafting a communication:

Key message: present your key message early, ideally in the first sentence or in the subject line.

Plain language: keep language simple and try to avoid using jargon and acronyms.

Call to action: be very specific with your call to action.

Brevity: keep the overall message short and concise and remove any unnecessary information.

Emphasis: draw attention to important words or sentences by using capital letters or by bolding them, but, use this sparingly for impact.

Imagery: avoid text-heavy messaging and use basic imagery, infographics, and animations where you can.

Clarity: provide a single point of contact for responses or queries.

Repetition: repeat the important take-home messages.

When it’s done well, simplicity makes communication clearer, and clearer communication is FAR more effective.

Tegan Crymble is Head of Behavioural Insights at BreadCrumbs Linguistics: a firm that specialises in Behavioural Linguistics — a multi-disciplinary approach to communication that combines sociolinguistics, psychology and behavioural science to nudge behavioural change.

Head of Behavioural Insights at BreadCrumbs | Background in exercise is medicine, behavioural science and statistics.

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