From Chaos to Clarity: Overcoming Negative Emotional Responses to Financial Information


Published in STC’s InterCom, February 2014.

Intercom-cover-February-2014This article explores how one U.S. financial firm, TIAA-CREF, discovered that usability testing could shed light on the quality of financial information they sent out to investors. TIAA-CREF is a nonprofit investment company that manages retirement funds primarily for teachers, professors, scientists, physicians, and researchers. They currently hold $542 billion in assets and serve 4.8 million investors. For decades, they have enjoyed a high level of trust among their participants.

However, a 2007 study conducted by The Plain Language Group for TIAA-CREF showed how poor information design and a lack of plain language not only left people confused, but also undermined their trust in the organization and their confidence in pursuing their financial goals. The results of our study revealed that weaknesses in the design of key financial documents can raise customer apprehension and create unintended, negative emotional responses to financial information.

According to the recent Edelman Trust Barometer (2013 Annual Global Study: Financial Services Industry Findings), 54% of Americans do not trust financial institutions.

Much of that mistrust is likely a result of the worldwide financial crisis of the past seven years. However, even in our 2007 study discussed, trust was a key factor in consumers’ response to investment information.

Trust is a vital element in financial decision-making, whether one is turning a check over to a banker or asking a broker for investment advice. A consumer study by Sapienza and Zingales (2009) reported that “investor trust” is the most essential quality for a financial services firm, outranking performance.

Trust and Written Financial Information

The relationship between trust and the quality of written information in financial documents has been noted both by academic and industry research. If a firm advocates for its clients, clients will “reciprocate with their trust, loyalty, and purchases—either immediately or in the future. This loyalty comes when firms provide clients with open, honest, and complete information that they can understand (Urban, 2004). Clients’ lack of trust is directly related to the kind of language used in financial information. For example, a survey of 1,200 investors/homeowners discovered that 84% of respondents did not trust companies that used a lot of jargon (Seigel & Gale, 2009).

In a study conducted in 2005 at Stanford University, students were asked to read the same information presented in three levels of complexity, from relatively simple to moderately complex to extremely complex (Oppenheimer, 2005). The results revealed that the more complex the writing, the less respect the readers had for the writer. We can conclude then that the quality of written communication either contributes to—or detracts from—the trust an individual has in a financial institution. In our study, we learned that trust was only one of the many emotional responses investors have when they read financial information.


TIAA-CREF had sent a letter to participants nearing the age of 70.5—the age when retirees must take a minimum amount of money from their Individual Retirement Account (IRA), called a minimum distribution. The main purpose of the Minimum Distribution Option (MDO) letter was to encourage participants to call TIAA-CREF to learn about the required minimum and the options they could take with their IRAs. However, the first week after the letter went out, the company received some 10,000 calls from participants who were confused and upset because they did not understand the letter, nor what they were to do.

This led TIAA-CREF—an organization committed to clear communication—to set a goal to test the MDO letter (among other documents) and use the results of testing to redesign the letter.

Development of the Project

TIAA-CREF approached The Plain Language Group with this project both because they hold our retirement funds and because of our plain language expertise. The original letter presented several issues. The letter:

  • was 1.5 pages long, even though the primary purpose was just to get participants to call and talk with an investment advisor to determine how to meet the requirements of taking money from their IRA account;
  • included in the first paragraph an underlined, bolded sentence that tended to “frighten” readers, which began, “The IRS requires….”;
  • contained a dense paragraph of numerical information that was extremely difficult to understand; and
  • generated call-ins by participants who were nervous and uncertain about what they needed to do.

We interviewed 13 participants (nine aged 65+ and four aged 40+), most of whom were PhDs and all of whom had their retirement funds held by TIAA-CREF. Using common usability testing methods, we did the following:

  • conducted one-hour, one-on-one interviews
  • used a “talk-aloud protocol”
  • asked questions
  • videotaped/audiotaped
  • took notes during interviews
  • noted patterns of responses
  • observed with representatives

During the one-on-one interviews with participants, three employees from the marketing department at TIAA-CREF observed the interviews.

For many of our questions, the answer could be found in the letter:

  • What must you do next after reading the letter?
  • What is “lifetime retirement income” as mentioned in the letter?
  • What, if any, follow-up communication would you expect after receiving this letter?
  • Do you have to explain this letter to a spouse or partner?

Other questions related to the emotions of the participants:

  • How do you feel as you read this letter?
  • Would you know what action to take after you received this letter?
  • What do you think would happen if you didn’t respond to this letter?

This letter proved to be very problematic. Not only was the content difficult to understand, but also (and maybe more interesting), many of the participants apologized for not being able to understand the information. Most people who hold PhDs are used to reading and understanding what they read. They are not accustomed to admitting they do not understand. One participant, who represented the responses of many of the interviewees, came back after the interview to apologize profusely for letting us down because he could not understand the letter, stating, “I know I should be able to understand this, but I don’t.” Simply put, many attributed their inability to understand to their own inadequacies.

Attribution Theory and Empathy

Attribution theory is a !eld of social psychology concerned with the how people explain (or attribute) their behavior and that of others. Generally, in situations where behavior does not bring the desired results, people either blame themselves or they blame others. In our study, participants blamed themselves for not understanding the letter rather than blaming the company that produced the letter. On the other hand, the Stanford study (mentioned earlier), indicated that the more complex a text, the more likely readers are to blame their confusion on the writer. But whether the blame falls to the reader or to the writer, either situation erodes a reader’s level of trust and creates negative emotions.

In fact, the three observers from TIAA-CREF all commented immediately on how difficult the task appeared to be for these participants. In particular, they noticed the interviewees’ discomfort. It had never occurred to the company that reading financial information could be a source of such emotional stress. Or, perhaps, they had just never seen the emotional response to financial information. They were particularly concerned about how many participants blamed themselves for being confused about the content of the letter.

In addition, it became clear that the letter lacked an empathetic tone. Empathy is a critical factor in projecting a helpful tone. Corporations would do well to focus more on empathy in their written communication. In 2005 Daniel Pink, who writes extensively about workplace issues, described six areas critical for success—one of which was empathy.

Areas of Confusion

Although the participants aged 65+ recognized that the letter was important, they were confused about:

  • what action they had to take
  • the timeline for when the monetary distributions would begin
  • the options they had for taking their minimum distribution
  • the meaning of several key words in the letter
  • the amount of money they had to ask for to get what they needed (often neglecting to factor in the 20% IRS withholding)

Participants’ responses fell into these general patterns:

  • how easily they could or could not understand the content
  • how the document affected their emotions
  • what problems they had or did not have with vocabulary
  • what questions or concerns they had about the process

Key Findings


Participants found much of the content confusing.

  • “I don’t understand the underlined passage.” (This passage was ostensibly the most important sentence in the letter.)
  • “If I don’t retire, do I have to do this?”
  • All participants understood the consequences of not responding to the letter (“penalties”); three said they would call as directed, but one participant indicated he would do nothing despite knowing penalties were involved because he was confused.
  • Despite that participants must be retired to receive these benefits, two participants thought that they could receive benefits even if they were still employed rather than retired; the other two did not know what to do if they were still employed when they received the letter.


All participants exhibited varying levels of distress and discomfort expressed through words or body language.

  • “This document has me frustrated a bit. I think this is going to take a long time, and I’m really approaching retirement. I also worry for those who might be less able to do this. I think they may be very overwhelmed by this.”
  • “This bolded sentence scares me.”

Our users squirmed in their seats, rubbed their necks or faces, sighed deeply, and exhibited a variety of nonverbal signals that indicated discomfort. One participant stood for almost four minutes at the end of the interview, apologizing over and over again for his inadequacy. Another said she would not even attempt to understand the documents, but would immediately call her financial planner. Some were less verbal, but all mentioned that they felt they should have understood the information, but could not. All reacted emotionally even as they struggled with the logic of the information in the letter.


Participants had a difficult time understanding specialized words and phrases in the letter, which caused frustration. In particular, they did not understand what was “optional” about the minimum distribution option. We saw how language that company employees might have assumed was obvious was unclear to the participants.

  • “‘Lifetime retirement income’? Not sure what that is.”
  • “‘Minimum Distribution Option’? Don’t know what the ‘option’ is.”

Eight of nine participants aged 65+ did not know the meaning of “lifetime retirement income” nor what “Option” referred to in the title of the letter.


Participants understood that they should call the company as the letter directed, but they were confused about the time frame for taking their minimum distribution.

  • “I wish this stuff about all these dates were in a table so it’s easier to read.”
  • “What lead time do you need? Three months prior to when you’ll need the income?”

Eight of nine participants aged 65+ expected a reminder to respond closer to age 70.5, but the company did not send such reminders.

Revision and Redesign

The means to improve the document became quite clear during the course of the interviews. Many changes were a direct result of comments from the participants (“put numbers in a table”) and from the evidence-based standard practices for plain language and information design, including:

  • Foregrounding the purposes of the letter: alerting participants to an IRS regulation and getting them to call the company right away to meet their federal reporting obligation, but without making them think the IRS was “after them.”
  • Reassuring participants that the company will discuss their individual situations when they call.
  • Eliminating all the information in the letter that can be more effectively conveyed through the subsequent telephone call.
  • Eliminating or clearly defining the financial and legal jargon.
  • Making the process of responding clearer.
  • Using a more helpful tone.

We tried to convince the company to send a one-paragraph letter that would explain the situation (federal requirement) and that simply asks participants to call within one week to discuss their options. But this approach was too contrary to the organization’s idea of a letter.

Unintended Consequences

The redesign of the Minimum Distribution Option letter for TIAA-CREF resulted in a significant increase in the number of positive calls. As noted earlier, when the letter was first distributed, TIAA-CREF received a significant number of calls in the first week from frustrated, confused participants. After the redesigned letter was mailed, TIAA-CREF reported to us that more than 90% of the calls were positive. Participants understood the letter, knew they needed to call and make decisions, and were able to more easily select the appropriate option to satisfy the MDO requirement.

But perhaps more significantly, the participants who called their advisor had such a good response to the letter and to the conversation that it brought millions of dollars of new money into the company. That is, because participants had such a positive emotional response to the letter and the conversation—which increased trust—many were motivated to move new money into their current investments. This latter result was a complete shock to the company. Although one of their goals was to be sure that the letter and the subsequent phone call were positive experiences for their participants, increasing revenue was never one of the goals. The laws of “unintended consequences” usually focus on what ends up going wrong; in this case, everything went right.


What we learned had less to do with how to revise or redesign a document, but far more to do with understanding the emotional impact written financial information has on readers. In fact, people read not primarily with their intellect or logical brain, but far more with their emotional brain. Thus, information design and plain language are, in our opinion, not only about creating documents that make it easy to find, understand, and act on the information, but also creating documents that are emotionally satisfying by being trustworthy, helpful, and empathetic.

DR. DEBORAH S. BOSLEY is the owner of The Plain Language Group (TPLG). She also is the current president of the Plain Language Association International (PLAIN), and professor emerita from UNC Charlotte. As principal in TPLG, she helps Fortune 100/500 corporations create information that is easy to understand and use. She has authored three books, written dozens of articles, and spoken internationally on topics related to clear communication. She also is a recipient of STC’s Jay R. Gould Award for Excellence in Teaching.


  • Daniel M. Oppenheimer. 2005. “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly.” Applied Cognitive Psychology, October.
  • Pink, Daniel H. 2005. A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. The Berkeley Publishing Group.
  • Sapienza, Paola, and Luigi Zingalas. 2010. A Trust Crisis. Unpublished paper.
  • Siegel and Gale. 2009. A Clarion Call for Transparency, January.
  • Urban, Glenn R. 2004. The Emerging Era of Customer Advocacy, MIT/Sloan Management Review, Winter.

Comments are closed.