Why reading information about investing is like meeting people at a party
We have just been doing some ‘consumer testing’ with people who have managed funds. As ever, when you use a technique like this you learn more and more about how to do it well. This time it occurred to me that people react to information in almost the same way that they interact with people.
We use a hybrid method where we first collect data, and then conduct a qualitative interview so we are able to measure reactions but also gain qualitative insight.
Meeting an old friend
Investors with a financial, mathematical or commerce background find consumer testing of investment information to be easy. Even if they have not seen this particular piece of information before they know how to react to it. They know the significance of the various numbers and financial terms. The experience is like meeting up with an old friend where you jump straight into conversation with little preamble.
Saying hello to new information
For many other investors though, reading information about an investment is like meeting a stranger. When we meet people for the first time, we use greeting rituals like saying ‘hello’ and or perhaps shaking hands. Greeting rituals help us orient ourselves to the person we are about to interact with. They give us time to assess the other person and help us understand how to proceed.
When we see information for the first time, especially complex information about something like investment, we need a similar greeting ritual. We don’t say hello of course (though surprisingly some people do). We need something that says ‘you can start here but you are not committed yet’.
This means chunking the information so that the first thing the investor sees is simple to process. As we often say ‘start with something easy’.
Moving on from the party bore
When we meet new people we have a choice about how long we spend interacting with them. Imagine meeting someone at a party and quickly realising you have nothing in common with them. You will probably try to escape.
This happens with information too. One glance at a table of percentages, and some of our consumer testers did the equivalent of bolting for the door. For people without a mathematical background, long lists of %s are the informational equivalent of a party bore.
The new way of presenting the information helped investors take greater cognitive control. We could detect this because they converted our client’ language into words that fitted their own life. It gave people who wanted to ‘engage’ with the topic a sense of mastery over the process.
Consumer testing often does this – it exposes the challenges of how to communicate to both experts and novices. The answer often lies in information design, such as breaking up the information in a different way, or using design techniques based on gestalt principles.