Pictures are so Iconic

person holding photo of single tree at daytime

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the VIMM method of evaluating the intuitiveness of a product’s design. If you understand the types of issues users face when working with a product, from there you can form a plan to reduce the mental stress and create a great user experience. Interestingly one simple technique that addresses potentially all 4 of the VIMM areas is the use of pictures, or in the case of digital products – icons.

In 1971, Allan Paivio published what he called the “dual-coding” theory. In his research, he argued that humans process information into memory via 2 separate “channels” or pathways in the brain. Those 2 separate pathways are distinguished between imagery and verbal information.

The interesting thing here is that we can look at a picture, particularly if it has a caption or label, and store it in memory on both channels. This greatly improves a person’s ability to later recall that image and it’s meaning.

The implication here for product design is that by using icons effectively, we can reduce visual, intellectual, and memory load placed on a user. Product designers think about making user interfaces where the most salient information or tasks are easily identified. In so doing, we simplify the difficulty in understanding how to interact with an application and can even reduce the number of steps it takes to do something. I would argue the same thing is true of emojis. A single image to convey a variety of emotions that might otherwise be awkward or time consuming to convey.

Paivio’s work led to what’s now known as the “Picture Superiority Effect“. It’s not fully understood or at least agreed upon (when is it ever in academic psychology?) why this is but there is plenty of demonstrated evidence that it does work. And early studies on metaverse applications suggest a material improvement, as much as 33%, in retention of learning material which could mean that the combination of 3d, video, and pictures all lessen cognitive load.

In 1927, some ad exec Fred Barnard made the statement “a picture is worth a thousand words”. Little did we know how ahead of his time ol’ Fred was.

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