Recently, I’ve run into the claim that images are processed 60K times faster than text. And, folks, it’s a myth. More over, it’s exemplary of bad practices in business. And so it’s worth pointing out what the situation is, why it’s happening, and why you should be on guard.
It’s easy to find the myth. Just search on “images processed 60K times faster than text”. You’ll get lots of citations, and a few debunkings. Most of the references are from marketing hype, selling you visual support.
The origin is suspicious. It’s always cited as coming from 3M, Polishing Your Presentation. Which is problematic, because when you go to that paper, you find the quote, but not a legitimate citation. Instead, there’s a vague statement about “findings from behavioral research” with no citation! Bad form.
A study done jointly between 3M and the University of Minnesota about presentations also is potentially a source. With only one small catch: it doesn’t mention 60K at all! Instead, it does conclude that “Presentations using visual aids were found to be 43% MORE PERSUASIVE than unaided presentations.” Which is hardly controversial.
Yet this is another zombie, like learning styles, that won’t die! It’s been researched by several folks, including Alan Levine and Jonathan Schwabish. No one seems to be able to identify a real piece of evidence. And it just doesn’t make sense!
In use, words are practiced enough to be recognized as a whole, serving as icons; they’re not repeatedly processed from letters into words. Second, images need parsing, too, and contextualization between the image and the current semantics.
Sure, we have many more neurons devoted to image processing than auditory, but that’s not only due to a sensory primacy (e.g. distance capability), but also the richness of the visual field. And more doesn’t equal ‘faster’. Yes, we’re processing in parallel, but nerve firing rates change based upon activation, not modality.
And this means that we have to have our ‘hype’ shields up. We need to evaluate any claims by several methods. Who else is saying this? Not pointing to the same (bad) data, but what convergent evidence is there? And what vested interest do the promoters have? And, importantly, does it make causal sense? Is there a plausible scenario when you did beneath the surface features.
And, if you don’t want to read published in the original academese, find those who you can trust. Those who’ve demonstrated a consistent ability to cut through the hype and the research, and bring good interpretations and debunk the myths. You can see my list of mythbusters here.
So, please, practice professionalism, avoid the hype, and use good principles in design and practice.