When you design or create an informative graphic, do you help the viewer quickly understand it? Do you purposefully direct the viewers’ eyes to the elements that are most meaningful?
If you don’t, you may unintentionally confuse your audience. A person may dwell on the wrong information for an extended time or become overwhelmed with too much information, not knowing where to look.
Directing the eyes to the important message is one of the essential techniques of learning design. It helps to ensure that people understand the intended message and it adds efficiency to the visual communication. In multimedia learning, this is the signaling or cueing principle.
How do viewers decipher a graphic?
Unlike other forms of communication, such as reading, listening to music, or watching a movie, the time spent looking at a graphic is often remarkably brief. By purposefully directing the viewer’s eyes, you make it more likely that a person will pick up the most relevant information within this short time frame.
Eye movements are critical for understanding a graphic. To decipher a picture, a person’s attention shifts from one location to another in an attempt to find meaning in what they see. The most compelling and prominent features in the graphic compete for the viewer’s attention. Individuals may visually scan the same picture in unique ways depending on their goals and their previous experience. When you use visual cues you are more likely to control how someone perceives and interprets your graphic.
What are visual cues?
Visual cues do not carry the primary message. Their function is to orient, point out, or highlight crucial information. Visual cues act as perceptual signals that control where viewers look. They include explicit symbols (like arrows) and techniques (like highlights) that are overlaid onto a graphic to call attention to its critical features. See a few examples below.
How do visual cues work?
Visual cues work because they are prominent features that viewers pick up early in the perceptual process. Even though eye movements are also controlled by the viewer’s expectations and search goals, there is evidence that signaling techniques to direct the eye are quite effective (Van Gog, 2014).
For example, signaling the viewer with arrows and color is known to be effective when used in explanatory and informational graphics. Studies show that when an area of a graphic is highlighted as it is being discussed, such as in a multimedia environment, viewers retain more information and are better able to transfer this information than those who did not view the highlighted visuals (Jamet, Gavota & Quaireau, 2008). Another study showed that the use of arrows as pointing devices reduced the time it takes to search for specific information in a visual field (Tipples, 2002).
What are the effects of visual cues on learning?
- Visual cues guide attention. Cognitive researchers study eye movements because eye movements reflect mental processes. A person’s focus of attention usually coincides with what they are seeing. But the relationship between eye movement and attention may not be absolute. We sometimes move our attention without moving our eyes (Posner, 1980). Because attention and the eyes may be dissociated, intentionally directing the eye helps to ensure they are aligned.
- Visual cues can increase time attending to the learning task. Eye-tracking data consistently show that perceptual cues guide attention to relevant information. (Ozcelik, Arslan-Ari, & Cagiltay, 2010). Learners selectively attend to the signaled area for a longer period of time as a result of a visual cue compared to non-cued areas. Also, visual signals help viewers select the appropriate visual information when it corresponds to explanations in narrations or text (Clark & Lyons, 2010). For example, visual cues help learners know where to look while simultaneously listening to audio and scanning a complex diagram.
- Visual cues can reduce the extraneous load on working memory. Learners use brain resources to find meaning in a photograph, diagram, or paragraphs of text. Visual cues can reduce the load on working memory by reducing the effort involved in visual search and interpretation.
- Visual cues can improve efficiency. When a viewer scans a complex graphic, it takes time to get oriented, to determine what is most important, and to extract essential information. Learners may overlook important details in complex images unless they know where to attend. When you direct the viewers eyes to a precise location, it reduces the time it takes to search a graphic and makes the process more efficient. “Eye movement data shows that signaling guided attention to relevant information, improved the efficiency and effectiveness of finding necessary information (Ozcelik, Arslan-Ari & Cagiltay, 2010).
- Visual cues can improve processing. During pre-attentive processing, people unconsciously direct their attention to features that are most salient. Yet, viewers will be distracted by irrelevant visual information that captures their attention. Directing the eyes helps ensure that viewers do not dwell on irrelevant information. More resources are then available for organizing and processing information as well as assimilating new information (Levie & Lentz, 1982).
- Visual cues enhance learning and retention. Directing the eyes can also assist in the comprehension of a picture or animation. Visual signals are often easier to interpret than written instructions. The types of visual cues used in informational and instructional graphics, such as arrows and highlights, are more likely to be understood than if instructions were presented in a written form. During complex animations with voiceover, signaling directs a learner’s attention to the most relevant part of the visual, which was shown to improve learning (Jeung, Chandler & Sweller, 1997). Research also shows that visual cueing can improve the retention of information (Jamet, Gavota, & Quaireau, 2008).
- Visual cues provide structure. You can use visual cues to add structure to a graphic, such as adding numeric captions to emphasize the order of a process. This organizing effect is known to improve comprehension because it provides a cognitive framework. Well-organized information helps viewers construct coherent representations in working memory, making it easier to assimilate new information into existing schemas.
Designing with Visual Cues
- Consider the visual literacy of the audience. Ensure the chosen cues are appropriate for their cognitive characteristics. For example, a younger audience may not be familiar with the meaning of visual symbols. Also, children are not as adept as adults at shifting their attention to important information.
- Avoid using color alone as a visual cue because it reduces accessibility to those with color blindness or other visual impairments. Use a redundant visual cue if you choose to use color (an arrow along with a highlight or border)
- Be consistent with the cues when possible, so learners know what a signal means.
- When you design complex graphics and animations with voiceover, use visual signals to correspond to the words. This improves visual search and understanding.
- Identify the informative purpose of the graphic, its degree of visual complexity, and the characteristics of the audience when deciding on an approach. For example, use explicit cueing techniques that indicate location when visual search is important for things like complex diagrams.
I’m teaching a four-week Visual Design class in my membership community, Mastering Instructional Design. It starts the week of April 6th, 2020. There will be live presentations (recorded for those who can’t make it), assignments with feedback, and a certificate of completion for those who attend and finish assignments.
- Jamet, E., Gavota, M., & C. Quaireau, “Attention Guiding in Multimedia Learning,” Learning and Instruction 18 (2008): 135–145.
- Jeung, H.-J., Chandler, P., & Sweller, J. (1997). The role of visual indicators in dual sensory mode instruction. Educational Psychology, 17(3), 329–343.
- Levie, H. & R. Lentz, “Effects of illustrations: A review of research,” Educational Communication and Technology 30 (1982): 195-232.
- Malamed, C. Visual Language for Designers. Rockport Publishers, 2011.
- Malamed C. Visual Design Solutions. Wiley, 2015
- Ozcelik, E., Arslan-Ari, I., and Cagiltay, K. “Why Does Signaling Enhance Multimedia Learning? Evidence from Eye Movements.” Computers in Human Behavior, 2010, 26, 110–117.
- Michael J. Posner, “Orienting of Attention,” Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 32 (1980): 3-25.
- Tipples, J. “Eye Gaze Is Not Unique: Automatic Orienting in Response to Uninformative Arrows,” Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 9 (2002): 314–318.
- Van Gog, T. The Signaling (or Cueing) Principle in Multimedia Learning. In R. Mayer (Ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology, pp. 263-278). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
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