Saturday, 14 May 2016

The science of visual communication

In my job I conduct a large amount of research, and but also create plenty of presentations. To help design good research, we have access to hundreds of published research on research papers. Yet when it comes to designing presentations or using any form of visuals, we have to rely largely on gut instinct and experience to evaluate what works best. There are plenty of well-established working practices and graphic design experts who are exceptionally good at what they do, but very little research to help us to understand the impact of different graphic design techniques, certainly in the market research arena.

Perhaps one of the reasons is that that graphic designers and market researchers don’t encounter each other very often.

A joint quest: researcher and graphic designer
Last year part of the Guardian's digital graphics unit responsible for creating some of the most famous infographics circulated online, formed their own company, the Graphic Digital Agency and happened to move into the same offices as our research team in Westminster and we got talking about infographic design and the lack of research to understand how it works. I was curious to know what they knew about the science of design and I found out they were as curious as me.  So we though, using our experience in conducting research on research and their skills in graphic design to produce the source material this represented a very good opportunity for us to work together to do some experimentation.  We sent out on a joint quest to try and learn more about how visuals really work.

We ended up conducting over 70 experiments and tested over 500 visuals, icons, charts, presentation and infographics on over 10,000 respondents in five countries, one of the most extensive pieces of primary research I think we have ever conducted. The complete findings have been published across two  ESOMAR papers: The quest to design the perfect icon, Puleston J & Sazuki S ESOMAR (2014) & Exploring the use of visuals in the delivery of research data, Puleston J, Frost A, Stuart T, ESOMAR (2014) .  But I thought  I would publish a summary of what we have learnt on my blog site.

Visuals work!
Whilst this has been a very extensive piece of exploratory research, I have to say much of what we have proved you probably already instinctively know: Visuals can have an astonishing impact on improving the efficiency with which we consume information.    

Whist this is already apparent to most of us, what we’ve been able to do is put some real numbers behind this statement, and understand more clearly how visuals work in graphic design.

Throughout our research we found that facts presented together with visuals could be anywhere up to twice a memorable as those same facts presented without. Testing over 120 different ways of presenting visually various pieces of factual information, in all but a couple of occasions, the visualised information was more memorably that the facts alone. The message is clear: almost any visual will help make any form of information delivery more effective. 

The question really is, why?  In our research we began to deconstruct how visuals work, breaking down every element of the communication process. Testing how quickly visuals were processed compared to text, the curiosity they generated, and how they motivated people to consume the facts. We looked at what respondents noticed, and the detail of what they remembered and questioned whether they would want to share the information they had consumed.  This is a summary of the most important learnings:

1.     The human brain thinks in pictures, not text
Humans process visual information much more efficiently than text. Our brains are designed to process imagery and we can do it incredibly quickly. 

In our experiments we flashed visual material for fractions of a second to consumers, and we tested hundreds of icons and logos. We found the images could be processed at least twice as fast as the words used to describe them and many logos  upwards of four times faster.
 For instance, the average person will recognise the Apple logo in under three milliseconds whereas the word “apple” takes around 20 milliseconds to be cognitively processed.

We are therefore more likely to take notice of visual information than text based facts because our brains derive meaning from it more efficiently. So if we are searching for information, a relevant visual helps navigate us towards it more quickly. 

2.     When designing icons, the more “literal” your visual, the better
In order for visuals to be effective in their iconic form, i.e. when they are being used to signpost information, they have to be very accurate - literally “iconic” - and they have to be descriptive yet without any superfluous detail. 

In our experiments we learnt that very simple one or two colour designed icons are selected far faster than the full colour, more detailed icons. Colour and detail can slow down processing information as our brains are distracted, looking for meaning in all the erroneous visual detail. 

Our research revealed that we principally use shape to navigate and process icons. Colour only has a value if it helps to literally describe the object.  The colour blue might help to speed identifying a glass of water, but colour added to the Apple logo slowed down its identification.  We found that logos with clear distinct shapes were processed much faster than logos in boxes or other shapes. For instance in our experiments the Gap logo, contained within a box, took twice as long to be processed as the Coca-Cola logo.

3.     A balance is necessary between visual simplicity and descriptive detail
Whist too much colour detail could make icons difficult to process efficiently, detail is nevertheless often important especially in a research context. Too little visual detail and you run the risk that the icon will misrepresent what it’s trying to convey. There’s a balance to be maintained between visual simplicity and descriptive detail.

4.     Visuals that “sell” their information need to work differently
The biggest challenge we face in modern day communication is getting people to bother to read your selling message and take notice of it. We process visual information all day long, often totally unconsciously or “pre-attentively”. The challenge is not just to facilitate information be processed and identified efficiently. Visuals also have another role, to “sell” the information. To do that they must, stand out, provoke our curiosity and then hold our attention.

Visuals are the gatekeeper to engaging the conscious brain. Our subconscious mind uses rules to decide what to take notice of – the main one being “is it interesting?” Once interested, an alert goes out to engage the higher processing resources of the brain to take notice.

The problem with literal visuals is that they are not normally very effective at this. Visuals that catch the attention or provoke curiosity are different. Here, juxtaposition and lack of immediate clarity can be an advantage.

Take this simple example of two visuals used to “advertise” a fact about the top speed of a supermarket trolley.

Using a visual of racing car is a very literal interpretation of the construct of speed its meaning is instantly apparent. In contrast, the second image of a bike rider perched on a trolley require some deciphering, and in doing so, provokes curiosity. The only way you will find out what the curious looking visual means is by reading the fact. Consequently in post-exposure fact recall tests, 40% more people recalled this piece of information.

5.     Effective visuals ask questions
Good visuals need to provoke our curiosity. They have to ask a question and there are several ways of doing this. One strategy is to frame something in an unusual way, by presenting a puzzle that the brain cannot solve subconsciously.

Below is a lovely example. The first image very literally describes the travel of a supermarket trolley in a conventional way. The second shows a picture of The Proclaimers, which if you are not British may be a little meaningless but they were a Scottish band who had a famous hit called "500 miles". The image asked a great intriguing question: “Why are they showing a picture of The Proclaimers?”  The fact is the answer, and as a result, the fact was nearly 50% more memorable.

6.     Building metaphoric associations improves recall
In our experiments it was clear that visuals making metaphoric associations help us to remember factual information most efficiently.  The example below shows the effect. Quantifying the number of broken trolleys as “two Wembley stadiums full” doubles the recall of this fact, but visualising this analogy trebled the fact’s memorability.

7.     But don’t overtax the brain
 A good visual alerts your brain by presenting a twist on the expected. It asks a question that you’re curious to know the answer to. However if your brain cannot solve the puzzle, there is a danger that it will be processed out.

Take this example below. The first is an image of a server room and can easily be connected to facts about data storage. The second image of clouds is more abstractly connected to “cloud storage”, a connection most people failed to make.  This is one exceptional example where the imagery actually had a negative impact on recall. People subconsciously concluded that these facts were simply not worth remembering.

8.     We use mental heuristics to process visuals

It might be a cliché, but we are more likely to take notice of images with human beings in them. Our research revealed that human faces increased the noticeability of content by upwards of 20%.
This is an example of one of the types of short-cuts our brain takes to decide if a visual is interesting or not. “A human is looking at me!” – we are primevally programmed to react to this.   Primitive as it may sound, a message delivered in red is, we found, more memorable than a message delivered in green or blue again by around 20%. Red alerts our brains, it’s a colour associated with warning messages.

9.     The primary decision-making heuristic: is it new or different?
Human brains also come programmed to be alert for differences in order to survive, to spot opportunities and threats. So our brains are on the lookout for things that are different, juxtaposed, or unexpected.   

Take this example of a page of infographics versus a page of facts presented in basic PowerPoint. We flashed each of these visuals for a second to respondents and the infographic version prompted 50% more curiosity to consumer.   Consistently in all comparisons we tested, more unusual use of visuals prompted more curiosity to consume.  

10.  The entertainment value of visuals encourages us read them
One of the main things we tried to quantify in our experiments was the entertainment value visuals offer, motivating us to continue to reading visual content. We conducted a number of experiments where we would, for example, show people the first half of a page of factual information and asked them if they were curious to read more. In nearly every case the using visuals increased the propensity to read by on average of 40%.

11.  We mentally amass more facts from a  visualised presentation
When presented with lots of facts in one presentation it becomes difficult to store them all in our memory. It’s clear that visuals really can help us to amass information more efficiently. In the experiment below we compared the net recall of facts from a visualised presentation designed by Insites consulting with a control group who saw just the facts in a non-visualised version. 40% more facts overall were retained.


12.  Good visuals have a halo effect
Good visual can have a halo effect, motivating people to read and remember other content surrounding it. Take the example below: the only difference in these two basic pages of infographic information is the choice of chart. The more attention-grabbing polar area chart made the associated fact about the number of trolleys stolen significantly more memorable.

13.  Visual information overload can detract from memorability of content
There is a point at which visual information reaches overload, a saturation point where the visual elements start to detract from the memorability of the content. The examples below show this. The Graphic Digital Agency produced four versions of the same page of factual information in each version increasing the level of visual elements. A point is reached where the visual elements start to detract from the memorability of the content.

We have explained how people use variation in design as a signpost to identify interesting things. When we use very little variation in design format, we observed much lower recall of the content. As variation was introduced, more information was recalled.  There is a point, however, where variance becomes the norm: everything is different. In this scenario we cannot work out what should be prioritised in our memory. So be warned, with increasing variation comes diminishing returns.  

Nothing different?      à  Something different!    à    Everything different?

14.  Colour plays an important role
We are attracted to colour, it makes things stand out. A colourful design engages our emotions and tells us subconsciously that the content is interesting.  But remember our brains alway try to seek meaning from colour.  When colour is used in a random way it can be detrimental, causing mental chaos, as our brains seeking to make sense of the colours.

We were able to measure this with a series of very simple experiments. Adding unnecessary colours/shading to bar charts for example reduced the memorability of the chart content by upwards of 15%.
Adding background colours to icons in search tasks significantly slowed down the speed at which icons could be accurately identified.

Colour backgrounds = 20% slower identification

15.  Visuals play a role in making information shareable
The final part of the story of visuals is the role they have in making people want to share information. In testing all the visuals we asked people to rate how likely they would be to share them with others. What was clear was that the rules that make a visual shareable and a visual that is memorable do not have a high correlation.

For something to be shared, design quality standards become much more important.
Take this obtuse example below: the badly rendered clip art visual is very distinctive, achieving higher memorability, yet few would want to share it.

Visual aesthetics seem to be very important when it comes to people’s willingness to share. Perhaps this is because if visuals look good, they reflect well on the sender.

Often it’s quite subtle. Take these two examples below. There was little to distinguish the memorability of the facts presented in these two different ways, but 50% more people said they would want to share the first second version, where more attention was paid to the design than the second.

In summary
Human beings are very efficient at processing visual imagery. Good visuals work because they enable us to make pre-attentive judgements as to whether to engage the higher processing resources of the brain.

“Literal” visuals are best for consumers searching for specific information and, for these purposes, clarity and detail are incredibly important.   “Abstract” visuals that ask a question are best when you want them to “sell” information.  Good, effective “selling” visuals should ask a question where the fact is the answer.

We have learnt too the important role visuals can play in anchoring information in our memories and making the information more retrievable.  There is clearly a point where visuals overload and overwhelm. They need to be used as a tactical tool.

When all factors are combined, the fact that we process visual information faster with visuals, that visuals help advertise information, motivate us to consume information, help us to recall information and encourage us to share information all creates a multiplier effect.

Take this final example I would like to show you illustrate. A famous infographic created by David McCandless, the master of infographics, that I think perfectly demonstrates the power an impact of visualization.  You can’t help be curious to read it and examine the information presented to you. The city icons on the top of the bars draw you in to examine the detail – and these creates memory associations. In head to head tests against the same information visualised in a basic bar chart in out experiments, we found consumers being more than twice as interested to read the information, they dwelled upon the detail for 50% longer and more than 80% of the information in McCandless’s version was recalled post-exposure and the information in this visual form is also infinitely more sharable. Search for this visual on the web and it returns 60,000+ links literally millions of people have consumed these facts.   These facts presented in a visually engaging way have made the information thousands of times more impactful than if they had been simply presented as facts alone.

The basic chart...

When you consider some of the uplift figures from our research, the maths speaks for itself. Take a typical visual that gets pre-attentively processed twice as fast, provokes 50% more curiosity to read, encourages 50% more reading, results in 50% more facts being recalled, and is shared 50% more = a well visualised fact has the potential to be 10 times more impactful than an un-visualised fact