Research shows that people often perform tasks and make decisions after only minimal information processing; however, in persuasive settings, such as online learning, most cognitive effort is first placed on the media presented. The human brain comprehends images almost instantaneously, as opposed to text, which prompts the brain to systematically process its meaning first, which is often a slower process than with imagery. Images also ignite a more visceral emotional response, which affords us the ability to motivate the viewer more easily than plain text. Advertising is an industry that primarily relies on the visceral response inherent with imagery to motivate viewers to purchase a product or service.
In online learning, we too often “miss the boat” when using imagery. We tend to rely on imagery as ornamentation to text, possibly because we lack the resources or time to effectively design imagery to convey the entire and/or appropriate message. In lieu of that, we often highlight specific portions of available stock imagery to achieve a desired message (via cropping, selective editing, zooming, etc.).
Ian Bogost has done considerable work in the area of imagery as persuasive rhetoric. He argues that visual fidelity implies authority, and likewise, simplistic or unrefined graphics are often an indication of mediocrity. Consider low-resolution or “poorly designed” product packaging, for example. It often fails to attract the consumer. His argument should resonate for those of us in learning design, simply because we are facing a more media mature audience, and are tasked with attracting, engaging and motivating audiences through a visual medium they have grown accustomed to and often are masters of. Poorly designed or inappropriate imagery will force this audience to exert considerable cognitive effort to process the lower resolution media, or worse, fail to appropriately attract and motivate them at all.
One thought, especially for resource-drained learning functions, is to rely on the heuristic model developed by Dr. Shelly Chaiken. The heuristic model relies on less systematic processing in the persuasive setting, and requires less cognitive effort on the part of the learner. Since heuristic processing is relatively effortless for the learner, it is likely you will have more success in attracting and engaging them than with the systematic model. Source of truth elements are key to the heuristic model. A short video or an interactive content object delivered or designed by a subject matter expert will potentially be more quickly seen as valid on the part of the learner.
For those of us lacking deep-craft skill in media design on our staff, consider reducing the amount of media elements that only serve as ornaments to other elements, and instead, try to rely on the heuristic model to design more valid visual content objects. You do need to always consider the resolution of the media elements you display, but you do less harm with immediate perceived expertise than with ornamentation.