Why we're wired for graphics
Everyone's worked on courses where the visuals could be better. We have 1,200,000 fibers in the optical nerve as against 30,000 auditory in the auditory. We're hardwired for visuals. This is why we have the picture superiority effect where an image trumps words for descriptions most of the time - what we call "a picture speaks a thousand words". Pictures are a much closer replica of our environment than words. So how do we process visuals. We have a store called sensory memory and we process from visual and auditory sources. We take input from the sensory memory into the working memory. A lot less information actually comes through the working memory to get encoded into the long term memory. Working memory limits the information we process. That capacity is quite limited - 4 bits of information at a time. This is information from top cognitive scientists. Information in this working memory is quite short, it lasts only a few seconds.
So how do we represent visual information? We represent images differently from works. These are internal representations that represent some physical characteristics of the real object. It may not be exact - maybe a line drawing of the actual picture. We represent things to ourselves very simply and that's a case for simplicity in graphics. Our capacity for remembering pictures in long-term memory is enormous. You could go to an image library and recognise all the pictures that you've ever used. People give meaning to the visuals that they process. You add context to the images you see, your values, what you understand, your culture, your beliefs.
"The mind is not a camera" - Stephen Kosslyn
We're not just recording devices, we're adding to the worlds as we see it. This said, we can go wrong with graphics - take a look. Research inspired design can therefore help. It's based on evidence and facts and can be applied to the real world.
How do you speed up your message?
Preattentive processing - we're always scanning our environments and by doing that we create a coherent picture of what we see and how we make sense of it. What things pop out? We notice these features quite strongly. There are certain characteristics of visuals and graphics that we can make pop out to make use of preattentive processing. Grouping is another technique that helps people understand things that go together. Connie shows some interesting ways to do the 'pop out':
- Colour contrast
- Unusual elements in pictures
- Size contrast
- Shade contrast
- Direction and position in pictures - what in visual language we call orientation
- Motion vs stationary
How do we do the grouping then? How do you let your learners know what goes together?
- Proximity is an obvious way to group elements
- Color is also a great way to group elements together
- Similarity is also a great way to create grouping; eg: several colored circles close to each other
- The law of common fate - we usually group lines or anything that's going in the same direction
- Connectedness - objects that are connected with lines or another visual element seem grouped
- The boundary principle. Anything that's within a single boundary gets grouped together
How do we make graphics efficient
When elements of a graphic are consistent in meaning, the information is easier to process. Connie showed us examples of where we read the words RED, GREEN and BLUE in entirely different colours. This obviously was strange for the entire group. What if the arrows for a skydiving graphic go up instead of a downward direction that actually is the direction in which we would actually dive. There's something to say about reducing realism - it makes graphics cognitively efficient. Illustrations are a great way for novices to learn, as against elaborate 3D pictures. It provides fewer distractions, it takes less time to percieve, it minimises load on working memore and it's easier to encode this in our long term memory. So how do we actually achieve this?
- Reduce noisy detail
- Increase contrast
- Make it minimalistic - silhouette instead of detailed pictures maybe?
- Fewer colors
- Less detail
- Smooth surface
- Minimal shadows
- Going from high fidelity to low fidelity graphics
- Use of line art instead of detailed pictures
- Use of iconic forms; everyday icons like shopping carts which people
- The use of symbols - people recognise this stuff very quickly
Can your image create a reaction in your audience's body? Images have that ability to move us in some way. Emotion and cognition are really tied together. Emotions affect mental process. They capture attention, increase brain activity and can really improve retention. This is because we build associations with images based on experiences. We are also particularly attuned to faces - this is something I've observed too. Our eyes move towards even cartoon faces. In fact that's one of the first things that we see on a visual. It's almost a way to create a 'pop out'. Connie is showing us this image. Emotional images are definitely awesome for changing attitudes. Graphics with statistics can create emotion around the numbers. Think hungry child in Haiti when you're showing a graph on poverty.
There's another side to emotion as well - surprise! Surprise results from novelty and humour. It comes from the unusal juxtaposition of elements and it comes from unexpectedness.
How do we make the abstract concrete?
Abstract graphics make understanding quite easy in some cases. Charts and diagraphs, graphs, maps, timelines, visualisations, etc provide an abstraction of the real images. You can use diagrams to show the big picture view to people. Diagrams can really simplify things for your audience. You can try to externalise people's internal mental models. For example if you're teaching the sales funnel, then use the funnel metaphor to explain it. Use graphs to present quantitative information. Maps can show so much more than geography. Timelines can show progression, evolution and history. Tables don't need to be boring and text based. You can use visual tables like this one!
This was such a great, information dense, yet engaging talk by Connie. Explains why she's one of my favourite bloggers and writers.