New research in repetition is a KICK

Posted by: Mike Verstrat

NPR’s Alix Spiegel recently reviewed the research of Elizabeth Margulis, Director of the Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas. Margulis took the rather free-form and non-repetitive music of Luciano Berio, a 20th century composer, and chopped it up. Her cuts were intentional, copying a component, and adding it in another location to create repetition where before there wasn’t any.

The whole point of this effort was to simply see if people liked the music more or less with repetition baked in. An extensive, random sampling of people evaluated the before and after pieces.

The results were clear:

“(The Subjects) reported enjoying the excerpts that had repetition more,” Margulis says. “They reported finding them more interesting, and — most surprising to me — they reported them as more likely to have been crafted by a human artist, rather than randomly generated by a computer.”

Spiegel’s interview with Margulis further highlights the role of repetition in music as a whole, and why this became such a passionate topic of study:

“A full 90 percent of the music we listen to is music we’ve heard before. We return again and again to our favorite songs, listening over and over to the same musical riffs, which themselves repeat over and over inside the music, and she (Margulis) became obsessed with understanding why repetition is so compelling.”

One key ingredient that draws people to repetition is labeled the mere exposure effect which basically describes how people feel better about something the more they encounter it. Margulis sums it up this way:

“Let’s say you’ve heard a little tune before, but you don’t even know that you’ve heard it, and then you hear it again. The second time you hear it you know what to expect to a certain extent, even if you don’t know you know,” Margulis says. “You are just better able to handle that sequence of sounds. And what it seems like [your mind is saying] is just, ‘Oh I like this! This is a good tune!’ But that’s a misattribution.”

Margulis also explains that the innate desire for repetition crosses boundaries of time and culture:

“Musical repetitiveness isn’t really an idiosyncratic feature of music that’s arisen over the past few hundred years in the West,” she says. “It seems to be a cultural universal. Not only does every known human culture make music, but also, every known human culture makes music [in which] repetition is a defining element.”

Margulis’ study is helping fill in the picture with some clarifying implications about why we crave repetition in sound. Some commentators on her work go so far as to suggest that our craving for auditory repetition might stem from life in the womb with the constant sound and rhythm of a heartbeat surrounding us.

So what (if anything) do these findings on musical repetition mean for the world of visual communications — more specifically for those of us concerned with designing digital experiences?

I would argue it means a lot.

After all, the phenomena of repetition exists in the visual world as well as the audible. In addition to her insights on audible repetition, I think Margulis’ work might also be uncovering some underlying forces that assist visual designers and information architects with the choices they make in communicating.

The point is, just as a heart beats to a rhythm, just as the hook of a great song sways our emotions — repetition in a digital experience makes us feel we’re right where we want to be.

If we think about what we do as communicators in the digital / interactive space, we’re usually set about the task of organizing information. There’s a goal out there, an idea, a concept — we try to make it clear by emphasizing the essential and removing the extraneous through the manipulation of word and image. We strive to make the complicated simple. That’s what we do in a nutshell. But of course, doing this with success is easier said than done. As Brion points out in a recent post, “… simplicity is hard to achieve, requiring a great deal of creativity; and that complexity is easy to achieve …”

One strategy for organizing the visual arrangement of information (as far as interactive experiences go) is utilizing principles of repetition, especially in key visuals and navigation elements. We often call this consistency instead of repetition but the classifications are similar. When designing navigation, we even choose terminology to describe those elements using words that are synchronous with other similar interactive experiences (i.e. Home, About Us, Contact Us, etc.).

Think about sites you’ve visited recently. Can you recall instances where you’ve had to look all around the screen to try and track down a specific link, button, or function? How did that make you feel? Why did you look for it in the places you searched?

Arguably, you expected it to be a certain way because repetition of that way had occurred for you in the past. As Jakob Nielsen points out, an axiom to remember when developing an online experience is that “users spend most of their time on other websites”. It’s critical when designing a digital experience to be aware of the audience, and have a solid understanding of what elements they’ll expect to be repeated or consistent.

Intuitively, this all makes perfect sense. Many of our life experiences are based on repeating audible or visual patterns in time and space. The sun “rising.” Seasons. Birthdays. The wheels of your car turning. Your yearly physical (get one). The traffic light. Alarm clocks. Tides. Rows of crops. City blocks. There are things you just simply believe will be there because they’ve been there before. Repetition somehow has the power to arrest our attention, and sooth it at the same time.


Of course when it comes to preferring things repeated, there’s a limit.

Most would agree that there’s a break-point (seemingly unaddressed by Margulis’ research) where you start hearing things like, “I’m so sick of this song!” and “This ad is so overplayed!”

To be sure, there is a progression of user interface design conventions (and design conventions in general) over time. Just take a look at how things looked a short 20 years ago to realize that patterns and paradigms in UI do in fact shift, just like they do with styles and preferences in any cultural context. Additionally, experienced designers often know when it’s right to break a rule here or there in order to intentionally fragment repetition for the sake of accentuation or variety.

Still, I think the power of consistency is so strong, that comfort in knowing what to expect often trumps any need to change for change’s sake.

Take Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway corporate site for example. One could argue that it’s passed a stylistic expiration date about 18 years ago. Yet many (dare I say older investor-types) see it as navigable, simple and largely device-agnostic when it comes to usability. I’d venture to guess it would cause quite a stir (for better or worse) if we one day fire up the url (does anyone actually visit their site besides me?) and we find parallax scrolling and promotional videos duking it out for our attention.

To be sure, BH’s subsidiary groups run the gamut of site design conventions, and I’m not advocating for or against their corporate site’s cemented-in approach. I’m instead pointing out where repetitive, year-after-year consistency in an online presence seems to build more forceful inertia than change — even in a Fortune 5 company.

I think the big idea that can be taken away from Margulis’ research — as it relates to things visual — is that balancing the unifying/comforting nature of repetition with the eventual desire for variety, should first begin with an understanding of the strong need people have for wanting to know what’s coming next. If you violate that need, you’ll be asking your audience to weather the storm of uncertainty until they are able to continue navigating through your information — that is, if they choose to stay with you at all versus bailing out and going somewhere else.

So weigh those risks before breaking consistency, and proceed as appropriate.

You’ve probably heard of the long-standing design acronym, “KISS — Keep It Simple, Stupid!” Maybe as a starting point to achieve simplicity, it makes sense to “KICK — Keep It Consistent, Kid!”

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