Which Zoom Level Increases Productivity?

We see zoom levels everywhere.

Despite their ubiquity, we rarely notice zoom levels. Are they even important?

In this post, I argue that zoom levels ARE important. I’ll explain the cognitive mechanisms (and why they influence our perception and behavior).

For example, I argue that zoom levels can increase productivity. Specifically:

  • You should ZOOM OUT for high-level tasks (e.g., outlining)
  • You should ZOOM IN for detailed tasks (e.g., proofreading)

Once you understand the underlying concept, you’ll see why. And you can start applying this technique in other contexts too.

Why Does Zoom Level Matter?

The secret is construal level (Liberman and Trope, 1998).

At any moment, we’re evaluating information using a particular scope:

  • High Construal: We focus on ABSTRACT information to understand the BIG PICTURE.
  • Low Construal: We focus on CONCRETE information to understand the DETAILS.

How does that relate to zoom level?

Well, many factors influence construal level — such as spatial distance (see Trope and Liberman, 2010).

To illustrate, find an object in your eyesight. Got one?

The spatial distance between you and that object — near vs. far — is influencing your thoughts about that object.

Perhaps you’re staring at a plant.

  • If the plant is far away, you’ll be looking at the entire plant. This view primes a high construal, and you’ll focus on “big picture” information (e.g., office decorations).
  • If the plant is nearby, you’ll see the concrete details. This view primes a low construal, and you’ll focus on detailed information (e.g., when to water it).

Why is that important?

In essence, zoom levels are spatial distances.

Therefore, zoom levels influence construal level:

  • If you’re looking at a ZOOMED OUT screen, you’ll adopt a high construal. And you’ll focus on abstract information.
  • If you’re looking at a ZOOMED IN screen, you’ll adopt a low construal. And you’ll focus on concrete details.

And THAT’S the key.

  • If you’re OUTLINING a paper, you need to orient yourself toward the big picture. In this case, zooming out from a Word document will help.
  • If you’re PROOFREADING a paper, you need to orient yourself toward the details. In this case, zooming into a Word document will help.

In both cases, those zoom levels are congruent with your focus. Those visual frames extract the cognitive resources that you need for those tasks.

Now, that effect is based on construal theory — so it should work. But I couldn’t find any empirical tests. So feel free to test away.

Which Zoom Levels Should You Choose?

Productivity isn’t the only application. If you’re a designer, you can also influence people’s perception of content.

When displaying visuals — images, videos, etc. — try to match people’s construal level. When your design is congruent with their focus, you’ll increase processing fluency (and people will evaluate your design more favorably).

Hint: You can usually identify construal level — low vs. high — based on the timeline of the decision (Trope and Liberman, 2003). With future decisions, we focus on the overall gist. With immediate decisions, we narrow our focus toward the details.

Use this chart to guide your decision:

If you’re selling tickets to an event in the future, then people will have a high construal. In that case, use zoomed out imagery to align with their high construal. You’ll orient their cognitive focus toward the big picture, and they’ll conceptualize the purchase more easily.