Use more visuals for stronger messages.

Use more visuals for stronger messages with better audience response

People tend to remember the message in a visual image better than through words. This is called the Picture-Superiority Effect, a long-standing observation in cognitive psychology research. Visual images include graphs, illustrations, charts, tables, photographs, diagrams, and maps. The conclusion to draw from the effect is for communicators to use more visuals for stronger messages, which achieves a better audience response.

The effect is activated because visuals are stored in two ways in memory: as an image, and also as a word or phrase that describes the image. In contrast, words are stored in only one way – in the word itself. The mind can generate images for words, but this process is not automatic and requires significant cognitive effort, making it less common.

Images can also help people understand complex concepts. When readers need to remember a complex concept or a process, they often rely on visuals stored in their memory. In this way, using more visuals will create stronger messages.

Implications for comms pros

In marketing and marketing communication, product images and visuals ensure that users are more likely to remember the product, its value proposition, and the associated brand attributes. They help the company stand out from its competitors. Also, in media pitches, using visuals in a story adds strength to the pitch, as discussed in my article, “Harnessing the Power of Visual Images in Media Pitches.”

People scan through a page of online content rather than reading in detail

People still mainly scan web pages, rather than read in detail. Around 80% of users were found to scan, as reported in a 1997 study by the Nielsen Norman Group. In its second How people read online” report, published in 2020, NN/g found that most of the core results were basically the same. Scanning all of the text on a page, or even most of it, is still extremely rare. Even when users do scan all the content, they never scan it perfectly, line after line. They still jump around pages, skipping some content, backtracking to scan what they skipped, and re-scanning content they’ve already scanned. (Newsletter readers bounce around even more.)

In the midst of all this scanning, visual images on a page tend to draw the eye of the reader, and if they are well-chosen and well-placed, they aid the reader’s understanding and recall of the key messages on the page. More visual images create stronger messages.

Although scanning lightly is the main method used to process information online, NN/g found the amount of time any individual user is willing to spend reading depends on four factors:

  • Level of motivation: How important is this information to the user? 
  • Type of task: Is the user looking for a specific fact, browsing for new or interesting information, or researching a topic?
  • Level of focus: How focused (or unfocused) a user is on the task at hand? 
  • Personal characteristics: Does this person show a leaning towards scanning and tend to scan even when highly motivated in the topic? Or are they very detail-oriented in their general approach to reading online?

Factors impacting the picture-superiority effect

Image: Nielsen Norman Group.

The strength of the picture-superiority effect depends on several factors, including:

  • Discoverability: People must discover and look at a visual for it to be memorable. The longer a person views an image, the more likely they are to remember it. The effect reduces if people don’t view an image long enough.
  • Clarity: The more concrete and literal the visual is, the more memorable it will be. The mind can interpret and assign a label to a literal image more easily than to an abstract one. The more abstract the image, the more difficult its interpretation, and the lower its memorability.
  • Familiarity: The more familiar a person is with a concept, the easier it will be to comprehend a visual of it and associate a word with it. People with minimal experience with a concept or object may not recognize an image of it and, therefore, will struggle to find a word to assign to it. The image will have lower memorability.
  • Uniqueness: The more unique the visual is (relative to other visuals present), the more memorable it will be.

3 ways you can gain from applying the picture-superiority effect

You can leverage the picture-superiority effect by creating or choosing visuals when making choices for content design and layout.

1. Place visuals where users spend time

To increase effectiveness of an image, you should:

  • Place important visuals to make important points. In a website, you can use analytics to identify where and how long people spend on different pages, screens, or web properties. The home page usually gets the most views. Therefore, it is important to place meaningful visuals on your website’s home page if you want to create more memorability for the areas you want to highlight on the page. Using more visuals will create stronger messages.
  • Place high-value, information-carrying visuals above the fold. Users spend 80% of their time above the page fold on websites. (‘Page fold’ is a term borrowed from printed newspaper publishing. It refers to the higher part of the page – visible without scrolling.) For the area below the fold, use visuals that support your brand but carry less information.
  • Ensure visuals remain on-screen to give users the best chance of remembering them. Some websites feature an automatic forwarding carousel of images. For example, some web pages auto-forward images about every four seconds. This risks users not having enough time to comprehend (and remember) the visuals.
2. Choose literal images over abstract ones

To ensure images are clear and familiar, avoid abstract visuals. These don’t show an immediately recognizable, clear object, and so they don’t suggest a clear word when viewed. Therefore, they are difficult to remember. For example, NN/g shows the Adobe Podcast AI product homepage (below), which carries an illustration of a key feature called Mic Check. However, the illustration is too abstract to understand.

This section of the Adobe Podcast AI page features an illustration of the Mic Check feature. The illustration is too abstract to support strong user comprehension and memorability.

Image: Nielsen Norman Group.

On the other hand, the ChatGPT homepage (pictured below) shows screenshots of the product on mobile and desktop screens, which makes it easy for users to understand the product capabilities.

The ChatGPT home page features two screenshots of the product in use (on a web page and on a mobile phone). This image is realistic and literal, and thus successfully supports comprehension.

Image: Nielsen Norman Group.

3. Pick unique imagery

Images that are different from the imagery around them are more likely to be noticed, processed, and therefore, remembered. In contrast, images that are too similar may be associated with similar words and may be harder to distinguish from each other, and are therefore harder to recall.

While uniqueness is important, your images should not be visually jarring. To maintain overall visual consistency or theme, visuals should use a similar range of colors, amount of detail, or photo crops. In this way, using more visuals will create stronger messages.

You should use unique imagery for your product or visual theme, and they should also be distinct from your competitors’ visuals. When visuals on your competitors’ websites are too similar to your own, users may struggle to remember your organization or product.

Should you use images instead of words?

Some people mistakenly use the picture-superiority effect to justify replacing text with images, such as including icons to communicate meaning. An icon is a visual representation of an object, idea or action. If the meaning of the icon is not immediately clear to users, for example, poor application of a heart, clock or bed icon, its use will be a waste of time for everyone.

To help overcome the lack of clarity in almost all icons, you should include a text label with every icon to clarify its meaning in that particular context. Even if you’re using a standard icon, it’s safer to include a label, especially if you have slightly altered the icon to fit in with your taste preferences or design/space limitations.

Image, opposite: Icons depicting a selection of time, date and place. Some icons shown here are more useful than others. For instance, these place icons could be confusing without a word label. When using any of these icons in content, it would be essential to include a word label with each one. 

Word labels should be visible with icons at all times. For navigation icons, labels are particularly critical. Don’t rely on hover to reveal text labels: this increases the interaction cost, and is also not practical on touch devices such as mobile phones.

Words still matter! Including text labels with icons will strengthen understanding and memorability. In addition, labels will ensure that your icons will be understood correctly and will increase the size of the visual target area around the icon, making it easier for people to click on those icons.

Conclusion

When the picture-superiority effect is effectively used in interface design, users’ impressions are more accurate and positive about your website, product, or brand. While visuals can add information and increase memorability, text is still required for good usability and conveying a clear message. There is no doubt that you should use more visuals for stronger messages and better audience responses.

Please note

This article is largely based on information from the Nielsen Norman Group (NN/g), one of the world’s leading firms in research-based user-experience. I have been an appreciative reader of their published information for more than 20 years, and have purchased some of their published material on web user trends.

Worthwhile NN/g articles for this topic on using web-based visual and written information include:

Kim Harrison

Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. As he has progressed through his wide-ranging career, his roles have included corporate affairs management; PR consulting; authoring many articles, books and ebooks; running a university PR course; and business management. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.

Content Authenticity Statement. AI is not knowingly used in the writing or editing of any content, including images, in these newsletters, articles or ebooks. If AI-produced content is contained in any published form in future, this will be reported to readers.

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