It can be easy to ignore a sign — either because you didn’t see it in the first place or because you didn’t read all the information on it. But what if it were also easier to pay to attention?
Working with a team of two other colleagues, Darden Professor Luca Cian wanted to know whether subtle changes to current road signs, warning labels and other icons could make those images more effective.
In other words, people would not only see the signs sooner, but they would also be more likely to heed the message and take action.
Working with a team that included University of Michigan’s Aradhna Krishna and Brigham Young University’s Ryan S. Elder, Cian conducted a number of studies and found that warnings sign icons that evoked more movement — or dynamism — were more effective in that they attracted greater attention sooner and led to faster reaction times from viewers.
“When you see an icon or a picture that can convey action, then you as a viewer are more prone to act,” Cian explained, adding that this decision happens at the unconscious level without active thought on the part of the viewer. Because of this, higher dynamism signs are more effective but not distracting.
As an example, Cian and his colleagues studied the different reactions evoked by two warning signs, one showing a rock falling off a cliff — the rock hovering in midair ready to squash any unsuspecting car driving along below — and one showing the rock sitting atop a cliff, looking like it is not going anywhere.
The two signs were identical save for the placement of the rock. But there was a big difference in how people reacted to them. Specifically, Cian and his colleagues found that study participants had an average reaction time of 980.72 milliseconds to the higher dynamism falling rock sign, whereas by comparison, the average reaction time for the sitting rock sign was 1062.09 milliseconds, a difference of more than 80 milliseconds.
Notably, for a car travelling at 60 miles per hour, a difference of 50 milliseconds is equivalent to 4.4 feet and can mean the difference between having an accident versus not.
“Here we are talking about a very subtle change in the icon that already exists … but this very subtle change can have big consequences,” Cian said.
Especially important for Cian is the fact that the sign, though it evokes movement, is ultimately still a static image. “It’s not that you have to create a video or animated motion. That is always expensive,” he said, adding that in some instances, video can actually be dangerous because a viewer will want to watch the whole video through to the end.
“When something is animated, you tend to look at it for a long time because you want to see the whole animation. And there are some times when you don’t want people to fixate too much on the sign because people are doing something else,” he said. “If you are driving, if you are looking too much at the sign, you are not looking at the road. Or if you are operating a machine, you don’t want to be distracted. ”
In these cases, a simple sign with a static image that evokes motion is most effective. “You want to react instantaneously,” Cian said. “You want to get the message but without having to look at the sign too much.”
So how can the business community benefit from this research? Firstly, Cian, Krishna and Elder have previously found that brand logos with more dynamism enhance brand evaluation. “So you would be more engaged with the brand,” Cian explained. “You feel more engaged with the brand if you watch the company’s advertisement.”
This is especially true in cases in which a logo or brand is encouraging a consumer to take a specific action — such as “buy this product” or “use this service.” According to Cian, “It’s a question of what is the sign and what is the meaning of the sign. If you are asking people to do an action, then having a dynamic sign is beneficial.” In cases in which you are not asking the viewer to take an action, a sign with higher dynamism does not have the same benefit.
Looking beyond consumer-facing signs, companies can also use more dynamic imagery to improve internal communications and reduce the risk of workplace injury. For instance, in cases in which employees operate heavy machinery, higher dynamism signs can be used to quickly convey instructions or warnings. Or if there is an extreme weather event, signs can be used to warn employees of slippery sidewalks or icy stairs.
“Signs that are more dynamic can actually help prevent accidents, and that’s traffic accidents, of course, but also any kind of accident, like people falling down because the floor is wet,” Cian said. According to 2015 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, private industry employers reported nearly 3 million nonfatal workplace injuries in 2014, and more than half of those resulted in days away from work, job transfer or restrictions on activities.
Interestingly, for companies that typically rely on written warning signs, such as “Caution” or “Slippery When Wet,” Cian and his colleagues found that those signs are not as effective in that they elicit a later response. “Sometimes you can write a big warning that says, ‘Do not cross the road’ or ‘The stairs are icy’ or ‘Watch out.’ And it can work. I’m not saying those signs don’t,” he said. But depending on the context, they do not work as well. In the study, the professors found that participants would slow down much sooner in reaction to a higher dynamism sign than a written control sign.
“We don’t have time to read everything,” Cian said, noting that this holds true whether we are driving or at work, distracted by upcoming meetings or unfinished tasks or chatty coworkers. “We are overwhelmed … so when we have symbols or images that very quickly can be seen and can convey that somehow we are supposed to react quickly, then a more dynamic image is useful.”
Luca Cian co-authored “A Sign of Things to Come: Behavioral Change Through Dynamic Iconography,” which appeared in the Journal of Consumer Research, with Aradhna Krishna of the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and Ryan S. Elder of Brigham Young University’s Marriott School of Management.