Consumers and Cognitive Load: The Telling Tale of the Infographic
During my brief stint as a university instructor, my views of students conflicted with my students’ views of themselves. In my idealism, I viewed students as humble benefactors of the gift of education. In their pragmatism, my students viewed themselves as consumers, and why not—they were paying for their education, right? However, some students thought that meant they were paying for good grades, and while I still find that ridiculous, I do think I could have improved as a teacher if I had been more willing to think of my students as consumers.
What does that mean? Well, consumers have options, they have expectations, and they have a voice. If they don’t like a product, they choose another. If a product arrives with a flaw, they send it back. If they have a bad experience, they tweet or Instagram or Facebook it. For each of these reasons, companies cater to consumers.
Infographics are popular because they also cater to consumers. They respect consumers’ time constraints and distractibility by being quick and digestible, and they (at least the best I’ve seen) shamelessly pursue engagement, interest, curiosity, and fun as ends in themselves. While these are good lessons for training, here’s the primary value add: infographics put the burden on the creator, not the consumer (learner).
Enter cognitive load, or the amount your working memory can handle before it starts acting like it’s 4:00 on a Friday afternoon. Managing cognitive load is a balancing act: ask too much and the brain maxes out; ask too little and it doesn’t engage. Luckily, as designers, we can carry some of the load and let our learners spend their brainpower on the things that matter most.
Here’s a common example to illustrate. Say you want your learner to analyze the anatomy of a flower. First, the learner has to get an image of the flower in working memory, either by recalling an image from long-term memory (the brain attic) or by recalling images of similar plants and creating a patchwork flower. Either way, it takes work to visualize a flower, and by the time the brain is ready to analyze, it’s tired. Unnecessarily tired.
Say, instead, that you give the learner an image of the flower being analyzed. The brain is fresh, with a full tank to expend on the most important task: analysis. Infographics can do the same thing. They translate complicated information into visuals and free up working memory to make connections, to evaluate, to expound. That said, it could be argued that infographics don’t put enough burden on the learner. Without sufficient motivation, a learner could move her eyes over an infographic without absorbing anything at all. It could also be argued that infographics put too much burden on the learner by overwhelming with too much information at first glance.
At Allen, we use interactive infographics to find that sweet spot of cognitive load. In some cases, we ask learners to input information that changes the outcome of the infographic, giving them a framework for experimenting with choices and consequences. In other cases, we ask learners to make decisions that reveal subsequent sections of the infographic, so that they control the amount of information.
Now, sailors be warned: infographics, like all tools, should be used for good and not evil. Today’s consumer is in a hurry, and people in a hurry don’t usually check sources. Don’t be tempted to take advantage of your learners by misrepresenting information, even if it tells a more compelling story.
And, lastly, like all good things, infographics can be overused. As you consider the form, keep in mind that they work best when they’re taking you on a brief, get-to-know-you tour, not a cross-country, multi-city, road trip. Correctly used, infographics are a powerful tool, helping you exceed the expectations of your learning consumer.
We want to hear from you. How are you seeing infographics used within your organization? What have the results been?