Perceptual Fluency - How clear messaging on packaging helps prioritize purchase decisions

by Alex Cosper on June 20, 2022

Exploring the perceptual fluency of consumers is a way to look deeper into consumer purchasing decisions. It's an area of consumer psychology in which researchers have barely scratched the surface, but it provides interesting insights to how shoppers respond to packaging design cues. Here's a look at the importance clear messaging plays on packaging.

Perceptual Fluency and Ambiguity Solution

Packaging designers should consider how the perceptual fluency of consumers plays into buying decisions. This knowledge can help predict what a person likes and thinks is worth buying. It's a field of study that seeks data on how shoppers respond to packaging information and the degree of difficulty or ease in which they develop an understanding of the content.

An interesting summary on how perceptual fluency affects consumer behavior was published in 2019 by University of York Department of Psychology researchers called Competing For Affection: Perceptual Fluency and Ambiguity Solution. The paper explains how fluency of perceptual processes reinforces ease of absorbing information.

A series of experiments examined how test particpants identified target objects versus camouflage. The study looked at the relationship between object preference and the concepts of perceptual fluency and "ambiguity solution," which means identification of the object from the camouflage.

Participants were shown a screen with an object moving across using high and low contrast as well as with and without camouflage. The study attempted to find out how different types of visual manipulations to the object and other screen elements affected responses. Researchers found that participants were able to process information faster for high contrast effects and non-camouflaged objects. Reaction time was slower for low contrast with camouflaged objects.

Triggering an Aha Moment

The common thread through many consumer psychology studies is that messaging on packaging should not be drowned out by design effects. The package should be a mix of clear messaging and appropriate corresponding imagery. If so, it has a better chance of delivering an "aha moment" to the consumer.

The aha moment refers to the point when a person reaches a level of understanding about what they are trying to perceive. It can be the moment a consumer figures out they've found the product they've been looking for. It also might be the moment a consumer discovers the value of a certain product.

The pivotal aha moment of realization in consumers can be triggered when they put several pieces of information together themselves. Sometimes the aha moment involves a consumer reading packaging information for the first time and learning something interesting about the product. That's why it's okay for packaging designers to include content that is camouflaged or hidden from first glance, but is discovered at a later point.

Packaging designers may be tempted to plant a variety of hidden content designed to trigger multiple aha moments. But that might be a step toward overkill. Consumers will only process so much information about a package and much of it relates to their existing interest level. While the aha moment may occur in the store, it's more likely the culmination of putting several pieces of information together over time.

Embracing Aesthetics

The aesthetics of a package certainly influence how an observer processes information about it. The design can include camouflaged elements to be artistic and provide deeper stimuli for the consumer to absorb. The degree to which a designer should use hidden content to be discovered at a later stage should reflect the sophistication level of the product. The more layers of knowledge connected with a product, the more you can experiment with artistic camouflage.

Every package has a front and back side and the front is most crucial for presenting simple stimuli that can be easily perceived. The imagery should either instantly trigger memories for those who have experienced the product or it can serve as an introduction to the product. Either way, the cognitive process should not be complicated. The back and sides of the package can provide deeper product information that doesn't have to be as artistic.

Package Preference

Consumers formulate preferences for packaged products partly based on their previous experience with the design. They are also affected by how the package contrasts with other packages in the store, as well as the content on the package. Studies show that consumers gravitate toward objects they easily and readily understand more than those that are unfamiliar.

Many consumers simply recognize the logo on a package and that's all they need to see to determine they want to buy it. Experience with the product and an understanding of how it's presented are key influences that can reinforce purchasing decisions. The more consumer becomes familiar with the package, the greater chance they'll observe more of its deeper content, such as a listing of food ingredients.


Packaging design plays a major role in shaping consumer perceptions about the products housed within them. In order for the design to resonate with a target audience, it needs to capture elements that consumers already understand about the product to facilitate faster perceptual fluency. For new products searching for a market, the messaging needs to speak louder than the design.

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References & Further Reading

Topics: Metal Packaging, Smart packaging, Design & Emotions

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