My post earlier this week on the images processed 60K faster prompted some discussion (over on LinkedIn ;). And there appears to be some debate about the topic. I think it revolves around the issue of just what’s in an image. So let’s unpack that.
So, the claim is that ‘images’ are processed 60K faster than text. And, of course, trying to find the actual citation has been an exercise in futility. But can we address it on principle? I’ll suggest we can.
Let’s take it apart. What’s in an image? Is it a photo? A diagram? An infographic? Even a video? I think we need to nail it down. So let’s talk about the presumed cognitive processing that goes on.
Let’s start with photos. They capture context. If it’s a familiar context, processing likely happens almost immediately. But others? Not so fast. Unless a context has already been established, a picture isn’t going to make much sense. That is, we probably should account for the context processing as part of the story.
As soon as we get to diagrams, the story gets more complex. Ok, Jill Larkin and Herb Simon once opined on Why a Diagram is worth 10000 words, but it’s about mapping conceptual relationships to spatial relationships. And I’ll still argue you need to process the elements, and the relationships, before you understand it. So it’s not instantaneous.
And, yes, there’s the lovely example in Don Norman’s Things That Make Us Smart, where he showed how a relationship was more quickly processed than the equivalent text description (he kindly didn’t mention it was from my Ph.D. thesis ;). Yet not all text can be replaced by images. What would convey Nike’s Just Do It slogan more concisely than that text? You’d have to establish the relationship first. E.g. their ‘swoop’. As I mentioned, familiar words are processed essentially as images, as whole words, not being processed by individual characters.
The same holds true for infographics, by the way. They’re not ‘grokked’ immediately. They need to be parsed in terms of message, and flow, and information. They’re a mashup of text and info, but that doesn’t make it any faster. Though they may support retention, but we should use diagrams and images appropriately with text.
Video’s even more complex. It’s a linear medium, as is text. And it’s powerful, but is it processed more efficiently? Again, I think it depends on what you’re saying. A video can be a narrated slide show. Is that faster than reading the text? I read faster than folks speak.
Which brings me to my take-home conclusion. A simple statement like “images processed 60K faster than text) is misleading. What image? It all hinges on what’s in an image. Be vary wary of such claims. In the previous article, I provided some questions to ask yourself. And I may have to rant again about myths in general!