Not just pretty pictures: Top tips for positive, visual engagement in e-learning for software tools

Not just pretty pictures: Top tips for positive, visual engagement in e-learning for software tools

You may have noticed that pictures are everywhere. Even now, you probably have a few little arrows somewhere in your vision, maybe an advertisement around you, or a smiley face on someone's coffee cup (there's always smiley face cup at the office).

Visuals engage us emotionally, and we are especially attuned to anything resembling people. Even a simple stick figure, or that coffee cup smiley, causes a little surge in the neurons. We process visual information faster than reading, and even faster than voice, so visuals are the first thing that grabs a learner's attention.

Visuals also enable modularity and scalability of learning materials. So, there are many reasons why thinking carefully about your learning visuals is a good idea.

The top tips for engaging visuals in e-learning materials

Visuals are there to drive emotional engagement. And if you read my post here, you'd know how important positive emotional engagement is for learning and user adoption.

You might be thinking - Easy! I'll just grab some stock photos and clip art from my corporate brand image bank and get emotional engagement, right?

Sorry, no. You need to consider several factors when it comes to visuals in learning materials. Learning visuals should create an emotional connection with the learning material first and foremost, without distracting the learner from the learning material.

Purpose and audience - is your target audience supposed to be buying or learning?

Different audiences have different needs. Your training and marketing audiences are different. Even if your brand materials have been perfected to sell your product to other businesses, or the C-suite, they may be completely wrong for a learner audience - even if the learner is the CEO! This is because marketing needs and focuses are different than learning needs and focuses.

In a training context, feelings of being marketed at may even trigger frustration by disengaging the audience from the learning process itself. Marketing is all about giving solutions to needs, whereas the goal of training is that the learner acquires new skills and competencies. You don't want to direct your learner audience's focus on all the material things they lack because that risks triggering those negative emotional roadblocks and distracting the learner.

Visual consistency and substance over style

You need some visual consistency in your training materials, something that random clip art will not provide. Nowadays you can buy illustration packages, but the risk is that they may not contain the specific imagery you need.

So, here's what you do.

First, decide first general look and feel you're going for: like, hand-drawn or digital, outlines or flat colors only, and are you only using brand colors or a wider palette. This may be defined by your brand guidelines, but if your brand imagery lacks the components that support your training, you may need to create them. For example, if your marketing illustration style is minimalistic, you need to think how to bring those emotional components in.

Second, choose imagery that supports, rather than distracts from what you're teaching.
Most importantly, visuals need to have substance, which means they need to be emotionally engaging and support the information being taught. Simply slapping on some cat pictures provides emotional engagement but distracts from the learning material itself. The cat should be somehow relevant to what's being taught.

We're not artists here! Do the visuals need to look good?

Not necessarily.

Corporate learning material visuals need to look watchable enough that the learner doesn't get distracted, but a "home-brewed" style may be even more engaging than extremely slick marketing-like visuals. They should be engaging and pleasant to look at but not overly attention-grabbing or juvenile. Famous mouses or other talking animals, superheroes, and risky imagery are not a good idea.

Simplification is an easy way to make the materials more inclusive while keeping scalability - for example, changing a character's skin and hair color is much faster and easier than redesigning the whole look of a character to match different ethnicities or ages. It's also a good idea to make visuals emotionally engaging by having clear facial expressions, as people are instinctively drawn to human faces, even simple ones.

How to make them scalable?

The great thing about visuals is that they can be reused. Building an image library takes a little bit of time and effort, especially if your materials require specific imagery, but once you have an image bank and visual guidelines, you can keep reusing and remixing the imagery.

To build scalable learning materials, you need to be familiar with what is being taught, find out typical use cases and examples being used, and tailor the visuals accordingly; aiming for maximal reusability.

You need a balance between generic and specific, so that as many pictures and video clips as possible could be reused in other projects. To keep learning materials more future-proof, making them multicolor instead of brand color only is safer, since brand colors might sometimes change. Having swappable parts like hand gestures, mix-and-match background items, and character poses that work with any background props means the same visuals can be used in various learning materials with little effort.

Visuals are a powerful tool, and like any tool, you need to choose the right one for the situation. Use them well and you will have a big effect on your learners!