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The power of visual instruction

Our brain can process images in 13 milliseconds, according to a recent MIT study. That is much faster than the assumed in previous studies 100 milliseconds. Visual information is consumed way faster than text or audio. Visual information is much richer and can not only be processed more quickly, but also be interpreted much more quickly. This creates opportunities for instruction of users or employees that need to perform complex tasks. In this article we explore the power of visual instruction. You probably know the issue: you bought a new product and have to find your way through a textual, hard to understand manual to start using it. Even highly complex procedures to implement staff are often described in text. This is problematic, because text is too abstract to quickly and easily process as a user. A good metaphor for this issue is presented in the work "One and Three Chairs" by Joseph Kosuth.
In this work you can see a real chair, a picture of a chair and the text definition of a chair. In fact it represents one real chair and two abstract views of a chair. The connection of the chair image to the reality of the actual chair is quite easy. The translation of the abstract textual definition into real life is considerably more difficult. This takes more time and also leaves room for interpretation and therefore errors. All in all, the textual way of providing information takes more time to process, and is more difficult to interpret.
What does this mean for instruction?
In instruction miscommunication leads to ambiguities, misinterpretations, danger, frustration, and increased helpdesk pressure. In this light, it is strange that many instructions we give customers and employees are still lyrically to a large extent. This is so far from optimal. Instruction for users is generally the first step in the customer experience after purchase. If that first experience is disappointing, it puts an image down for the entire product. Instruction is thus an important tool in achieving a good customer experience. Poor instruction leads to frustration for users. Moreover, it can cause defects in products or dangerous situations. Finally, we also see many cases where lack of instruction causes a dramatic increase in the pressure on the helpdesk or call center. Users do not have the right information to find solutions themselves. This leads to high costs of customer support and hidden costs of frustrated customers. Minimalist and visual instruction is the way to prevent the miscommunication that underlies it. And not only that, it is also the way to create major cost and time savings.
Minimalist & visual instruction
But what is minimalist visual instruction? The principles are the result of research into software instructions in the 1980's. The fundament of minimalism is the assumption that humans have a natural tendency to ignore information because there is an overload of information coming down on people. This means that instruction needs to be to-the-point in order to fit in with the user. The design approach removes unnecessary information and provide instruction in an active and convenient way. Minimalism avoids unnecessary information by focusing on the standard task performance and rejects to describe all kinds of exceptions. Moreover, you make sure you give the steps that create a lot of mistakes or have a major impact some extra attention. A convenient way of offering instruction, is working with as many visual representation of the actual task situation and support the instruction with visual cues.
Minimalist and visual instruction principles also help you with the following design guidelines:
  1. Focus on realistic / meaningful tasks: task analysis is an important component in the design of good instructions based on minimalist principles. By thorough analysis and categorization of content in logical and familiar tasks, retrieval and use of the instructions gets easier.
  2. Make the self-instruction and active: by using active wording of the steps to be performed, and a well structured design, the use of instructions becomes easier. Share the instructions in steps that guide the user directly, so he/she can perform the task at hand actively with the instruction at hand.
  3. Problem detection and resolution: add information about common problems that can be identified by the user and present the solution to the problem. This prevents users from getting stuck during the execution of steps in the instruction.
  4. Provide a clear link between the instruction and the object: this is were the visual and mobile technology help. The object of instruction should be easily recognizable in the instruction, so that instructions can be used whilst operating the object. A realistic illustration, picture or video is of critical importance here. In addition, the instruction must be directly to consult with the use of the object. This can be in the form of a quick reference card, but nowadays also by using mobile devices.
The minimalist and visual principles are widely used in the heyday of software instruction. There is a solid body of research done by the Instructional Technology Department of the University of Twente. In recent years, the attention of these instruction principles shifted to video instruction, partly due to the rise of YouTube.
Youtube-ification of instruction
That there is a need for new opportunities for visual instruction can be seen on YouTube. This medium nowadays holds instructions from doing your hair to fixing your iPhone. A great development, because instructions can be found online for almost any task. Yet the instructions via YouTube also have several drawbacks:
  • Reliability: on YouTube, the content is not validated. There is a massive amount of instructional videos, but they are not always reliable. Although the source is always transparent and user ratings are available, it remains difficult to determine the reliability of the instructions. That makes YouTube certainly for business a less useful platform.
  • Finding the right content: although YouTube has good search capabilities it is still difficult to find the proper instructions. There is simply to much and it is hard to separate the good from the bad. Finding a collection of 10 video's explaining how to operate a coffee machine is great, but it is also hard to determine what video you should use. 
  • Quality: The quality of instructional videos on YouTube varies widely. There are instructional videos that have studio quality and provide effective explanations. However there are also many with substantively little professionalism in them.
  • Shape: a 5-10 minute video is not always effective as instruction. YouTube videos and videos in general are a great way to show complex movement. On the other hand video dictates the pace of instruction, whilst the absorption capacity varies between users. If you look at the integral video, you are guaranteed to forget information at the end. And if you perform a step-by-step tasks whilst using video instruction, you better know exactly when to pauze the video.
  • Clarity: Especially in quality and form, there is little clarity on YouTube. The design of instruction and the quality varies widely. That makes it less ideal as professional source for instructions. Only way to limit this effect is by creating a separate instruction channel for your company, but that doesn't even always produce the desired results.
In the end there still is a lot of improvement potential for professional instruction. That is exactly where SwipeGuide comes into play. We want to combine the best of mobile and video technology with proven instructional principles. We develop a web & app platform that brings effective instruction to users and employees in a flexible and user friendly way.
Interested in a new way of instruction for your clients or employees? Then join us and become co-creation partner SwipeGuide. Register on the website SwipeGuide!
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