Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Cues that You Need an Image Instead of Text

By Shelley A. Gable

We know that meaningful images provide a memorable and efficient way to learn information. Yet, in the tradition of building bulleted lists in PowerPoint, text dominates many eLearning courses.

As a text-oriented person myself -- someone who finishes reading an article's text and then goes back to view the tables and charts -- translating text into images does not come naturally for me. So, over the past year, I've made it an informal personal goal to get better at it. After drafting a lesson, I've developed the habit of scrolling back through it in search of opportunities to replace text with something more visually appealing (e.g., a flowchart, labeled image, etc.).

Here are a few cues that prompt me to consider replacing text with images...

Image Cue: Process Overview

If I've written out a step-by-step process in an eLearning course, I try to replace it with a diagram. An easy way to do this is to replace each step with an icon or representative image, and then prompt learners to click or hover over the images for a brief explanation.

Not only is this more visually appealing than a slide of text, but the diagram itself can come in handy as an abbreviated way to refer back to steps in the process throughout the course. For instance, if the next few slides elaborate on steps in the process, you can put a small version of the diagram in the corner of the screen and highlight the step they're learning about, reinforcing how the details fit into the larger picture.

You can also use an interactive diagram like this as a hint for learners. When prompting them to practice with a scenario or activity, including a mini version of the diagram on the slide can allow learners to hover over the steps to remind themselves of what they need to do to complete the practice activity successfully. Kind of like a job aid within the training.

Describing a process can also work well as a video or webcast, especially if some aspects of the process require more detailed explanation or deserve clear emphasis.

Image Cue: Anatomy

An image is ideal for describing the components of something, such as a system screen, a form, or a piece of equipment. A simple click-to-view or hover interaction allows the image to be the focal point of the screen with minimal text appearing at any one time to reduce clutter.

Image Cue: Storytelling

While there are many ways to include a story in eLearning, a slide full of text is probably the dullest option. Even if your access to multimedia is limited, including an image for every sentence or two of text can breathe life into your story, make it easier to read, and help ensure learners absorb it all.

For example, if you're relaying a positive customer experience, you might include images with facial expressions that correspond to the plot. Images of frustrated expressions might go with a description of a customer's initial problem, intrigued expressions might go in the middle as the problem is being explored and moving toward resolution, and joyous expressions might come at the end when the problem is solved.

Finding and Creating Images

Basic icons, images of people, and photos of everyday objects can be easily found in any stock image library. Even if you don't have image editing tools like SnagIt Editor or Photoshop, you can usually edit basic properties in the programs you use to storyboard an eLearning course. For instance, PowerPoint has options for flipping images, changing their color schemes, making their backgrounds transparent, adding shadows and depth, and probably other maneuvers I have yet to discover.

In the absence of specialized software, PowerPoint also makes it easy to create diagrams by using their drawing tools and Smart Art function. If you use Articulate for rapid eLearning development, their Engage add-on includes several diagram-oriented interactions.

What prompts you to use images?

As I admitted earlier, I have to make a concerted effort to find opportunities for images in the training I design. It just doesn't come naturally to me. And for those of you who are better at this, my advice likely seems pretty basic. So if that's the case, please share your advice. What prompts you to use an image instead of text?


  1. Shelley - Nice article. Another way I've been trying to use more visuals in presentations and training is when I want to add more emotions to the content since emotions help make material sticky. I've been trying to push myself to include images with stronger positive or when called for negative connotations to help make my material stickier.

  2. Oooh, good tip! Adding emotional impact definitely makes content more memorable...and I can see how images are an effective way to convey that. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Maybe as an experiment, try it the other way around. Start with images even if the are stick figures and chicken scratchings and then add the words.

    I think some courses also suffer from too much audio or audio that isn't broken down into smaller chunks.

    Like a song or a story, courses are also orchestrating time.


Thank you for your comments.