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The Comprehension Gap And Why It Matters To Web Design

Every website design decision should encourage visitors to act and engage with your website. You'll want them to sign up for your newsletter, follow you on social media or buy whatever you're selling.
Stephen Meehan.
Stephen Meehan April 2022
Man on a tightrope.

However, while doing so, you have to be mindful of an important design principle that can influence your users' decisions: the comprehension gap. Advertisements tell us that new products answer our problems and that getting fit is as easy as switching up your diet. However, behind the hype on most products and services is a gimmick that relies on our minds trying to work against us—it's called the Comprehension Gap. 

What is the Comprehension Gap?

The Comprehension Gap is a psychological phenomenon that explains the gap between what people think they understand and what they do. This tendency can come into play in many different contexts, and it has important implications for web design.

Comprehension Gaps are cognitive biases, which means they aren't necessarily related to anything logical. It's not just about things being hard to understand; you might feel like you know something even when you don't remember it very well. People think they understand scientific articles better than they do, for example.

What causes the Comprehension Gap? The effect typically happens when there are multiple steps involved in the process of understanding something new:

  1. It's a new topic you have to learn.

  2. You need to try and remember it.

  3. You need to apply what you know.

  4. Evaluate your learning.

Any one of these steps can cause issues for users if their comprehension lags behind their perception. The impact on trustworthiness and credibility -- how much users will believe your content -- can be dramatic.

How Can You Use the Comprehension Gap in Web Design?

The Comprehension Gap is something that you experience as a reader or user, but it can also be helpful during the web design process. Understanding this psychological tendency can help you better communicate your ideas to clients and users. From this perspective, the Comprehension Gap becomes a powerful tool in web designing when you look at it. 

  • Use simple language: The concept may be complex, but always use simple words so that people will understand what you're trying to say or convey. Avoid using jargon or terminologies that require in-depth knowledge of the topic. Remember: Keep it straightforward!

  • Use images: If possible, add illustrations or images to support your points and explain your ideas more clearly. 

  • Use familiar terms: Make sure that people immediately understand what you mean by using simple metaphors, analogies and similes in your explanations (e.g., "We have to get out of here before we drown!"). Remember: Familiarity breeds understanding.

A website needs to maintain a certain level of credibility to build trust.

A website's credibility factors in two main design elements:

  1. Consistency: A consistent website design feels organised and reliable. It reduces cognitive load and makes users feel like they know what they can expect from different website sections, increasing their likelihood of following through with the next steps.

  2. Credibility: A professional-looking layout will generally have more credibility than an amateurish or cluttered one.

Taking risks is easier when you're excited or feel like you're in control.

The idea behind the Comprehension Gap is that people are more likely to take risks when they're excited or feel like they're in control. In short, the Comprehension Gap happens when our brain assumes what will happen next based on what we expect—and we make that expectation because of experience. Our brain is so good at completing patterns (like words) or puzzles (like mazes) that sometimes it finishes the pattern without even realising it. This gap between expectation and reality often causes us to "hear" information that isn't even there—and it's a safe bet you've experienced this without realising it.

The Comprehension Gap is at its widest when someone has just learned something new and isn't yet comfortable using their new knowledge. It's like teaching someone how to drive for the first time: suddenly, you have all these commands you want them to follow—turn right here, turn left there, watch out for cars on your right.

They might not understand everything you say (or get confused by the constant barrage of instructions). Causing them to "fill in" any gaps with what they think is happening instead of listening closely enough to follow directions correctly and safely navigate through traffic.

When Does Your Brain Trust Something?

Trust is when you think someone or something is going to do what you expect, a business relationship can't be successful without trust. The most common way to build trust online is through testimonials on your website — but only if they are genuine! Many companies claim their clients as happy ones but don't provide any proof, which destroys their credibility instead of increasing it.

Be aware of how human psychology can impact customer understanding and that you can use this psychology to your advantage. Understanding how people think, and crafting websites and designs around this information, is an effective way to make a more thoughtful design for all users.

Stephen Meehan.
Stephen Meehan
I'm a Manchester-based web designer and developer, and the founder of D3 Creative since 2005. My expertise includes collaborating with in-house marketing teams to redesign corporate websites.
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