Media consumers, especially learners, want the easy life. They’re interested in the content, not the container. The technology and the interface with which they interact should be invisible. Your design decisions should be invisible.
And all that requires a little media chemistry.
There is a limited range of elements which make up all media formats. While there is generally more than one element capable of fulfilling any task, they each have their particular strengths:
- Text is precise. You can read it at your own pace. And when delivered online, it requires only the barest minimum of bandwidth.
- Still images (photos, illustrations, charts and diagrams) show what things look like, clarify cause and effect relationships and depict trends and proportions. They are also much more memorable.
- Speech is more expressive than text and combines brilliantly with moving images (animations and videos).
- Music creates an emotional response. Elephants like it.
- Animation provides the best possible way to illustrate processes (how things work). The movement attracts attention.
- Video depicts real-life action. It shows people, events and places as they really are.
Media chemists do not throw all these elements into a test tube and heat them up. They take care over what goes with what.
However, you do not need a media chemistry degree to sort it out. There’s a simple rule.
Text and speech are verbal elements. Still images, animation and video are visual elements. Music’s an embellishment that we can put to one side for now.
Generally speaking, you want to major on a single visual element and a single verbal element.
- text and still images work well together, as they do in a book
- animation (perhaps even a sequence of pictures) combines well with speech
- video works just fine with an audio soundtrack (speech, sound effects, music)
- text and speech used together alongside any visual element makes for difficult viewing (the brain can only process one verbal element at a time, so the learner has to choose which to concentrate on and try to ignore the other)
- video (say a presenter’s webcam), alongside still images or animation, is equally distracting because the learner cannot watch both at the same time
See Richard E Mayer’s Multimedia Learning (Cambridge University Press, 2009) to see the research that backs all this up.
At this point, you may be feeling a little uncomfortable. After all, lots of e-learning breaks these rules and so do most PowerPoint presentations. That’s not an excuse for continuing as things are. A lot of e-learning courses and PowerPoint presentations are tolerated at best, hated at worst. We’re trying to be compelling, remember?