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A reader asks how to conduct user experience design for different types of end-users:

"Usually, visitors to a website might either be a verbal or a visual learner. How do we design websites and GUI products keeping in mind the requirements of verbal and visual learners?"

Answer: There has been quite a bit of research on the "visualizer-verbalizer" question since the mid-1970s. It's mostly from the instructional design field where "individual differences" among students might affect learning.

In theory, instruction should accommodate "cognitive styles" for people who do better with either visual instruction or verbal instruction. Different strokes for different folks.

First, I'll give you the quick answer regarding your target customers. Then I'll show you a pitfall to avoid with your team. And last, I'll give you a new approach to writing tag lines for your site.

All this from one short question!

So, here's the quick answer: Most people (about 70%) express a liking for both visual and verbal learning – their cognitive style seeks out both.

So, design for both visual and verbal end-users.

Too easy, huh?

But, wait; there are extremes of each dimension. Visualizers might represent 15% of the general population and verbalizers another 15%. Who are these people? When should you slant your web site to meet their needs?

Well, do lawyers differ from, say, sculptors when it comes to cognitive style or "learning preference"?

Research questionnaires show that, yes, lawyers like to work with words more than a lot of other people. (Surprise!)

Occupational destiny reflects what we like to do – and those preferences reflect our "cognitive style" for communication and learning.

Likewise, the answers given by sculptors show they prefer visual communication and visual instruction more than a lot of other people.

So – if your product or service web site aims at a very particular customers, such as selling art supplies to sculptors and visual artists, then what?

Well, be smart and avoid thick paragraphs of text as a substitute for pictures of art products. (I'm expressing the obvious, for pedagogical impact... ;)

On the other hand, do artists avoid reading altogether? No way. Text carries important information. So, include text where needed to clarify.

So, we get the point. For the extremes of visualizers and verbalizers, serve the food they like. You'll get a bunch more attaboy, plus payoffs from return visits.

Go with the flow when a specific verbal or visual "cognitive style" goes with the occupational territory. Otherwise, provide a buffet of visual and verbal experiences that capture interest and provide value.

See my November, 2010 HFI Design Newsletter that shows that good website visuals are your best tool for grabbing customer attention.

Next, we cover additional important stuff. Namely, what about your design team? Do you have a visualizer-verbalizer standoff in the making?

Toyota Prius

Your visualizer vs. verbalizer standoff

We spoke about "extremes" among your target customers, referring to occupational destiny. Shouldn't that apply to your graphics providers (maybe you!)?

And what about those other folks on your team? Do you have a content person, product manager, programmer, and a copy writer?

Remember, some of these team members earn their living because they do work that matches their "cognitive style". They do great things because they know the intricacies of visuals or words and how to make them effective. Could there be "differences of opinion" because of those differences in cognitive style?

A 2004 study by Andrew Mendelson, a media researcher at Temple University in Philadelphia, examined how "visualizer" scores of undergraduate participants correlated with recall of 36 news photographs viewed earlier in the session.

He wondered if high scorers would recall more photos than people with lower visualizer scores.

And the answer was "yes". The visualizer score correlated with the number of photos they recalled. (On average, participants recalled 20 out of the 36 photos. But good visualizers recalled more and lousy visualizers recalled fewer.)

High visualizers also spent more time looking at the photos than low visualizers.

Mendelson gives his conclusions.

"...high visualizes are better able to see images as unified wholes and see relationships between elements in the photographs. This ability is similar to the notion of chunking, the process that allows chess experts to see organization and meaningful relationships on a chessboard...and remember patterns of moves effectively...

High visualizers are efficiently able to store more information about each news photograph, which may lead to a more unique memory trace facilitating recall...

I conclude that high visual learners may have a better ability to organize visual information efficiently and meaningfully." (p. 14)

Negotiating differences

What does this mean for your team? It means that your high visualizers have quite a different experience with pictures than those with less interest in visuals. Those differences can be a strength as well as a source of disagreement.

Strength comes from appreciation of visualization expertise. See my Dec, 2009 Newslettter "User Experience" Meets "Beauty is Truth, Truth is Beauty" for the benefits of great graphic support.

Disagreement comes from misplaced emphasis on visuals when other communication tools might be better. For example, how often have you had to advocate buttons with labels in response to a push for a graphic icon (with obscure meaning)?

Further sources of conflict can arise when visuals carry too much of your message content. Mendelson reports how pictures can support text, but cannot carry the whole message. Do you have this high visualizer vs. low visualizer debate within your team?

"When photos are presented alone, the story is created completely from the interaction of the image and stored information in the viewer's long-term memory. A person who learns best visually may have a more complex store of visual stories that provide context for what they are seeing." (p. 15)

A strong visualizer may suggest just using an image or photo to carry the whole story. For them, it's "obvious". To others it's debatable. Our methods suggest usability testing of these debatably "obvious" conclusions.

Using the precautionary principle (e.g., "better safe than sorry"), design teams should avoid one-sided emphasis on either visuals or textual approaches. Avoid lopsided outcomes motivated by one or two forceful personalities (or charisma!). Be practical. Be "average" in visual or verbal advocacy.

NEXT: creating a visual tag line

What else can we do to aid communication with Web customers who vary in their visual and verbal cognitive styles?

The notion of a "tag line" carries connotation of branding and marketing. For example, the popular TV and movie series of Star Trek has the tagline "To boldly go where no man has gone before".

Research over the last 3 decades in the area of "metaphor" teaches us a lot about the melding of visual with verbal.

In a 2009 report by George Lakoff from the University of California in Berkeley, we learn that the best metaphors are easily understood (and learned) because they utilize our tendency to visualize and "live" the words in the metaphor.

Take, for example, the metaphor "Love is a Journey". Why do we understand this, even though at the literal level it doesn't represent anything we normally see?

(A "journey" literally takes you from one physical location to another physical location. In contrast, "love" is literally a subjective state of mind – and hormones.)

Tag line smells, tastes, feels, and looks like a metaphor

Lakoff points out that metaphors work because they build on concepts we learn early in life. Our brain accepts the concepts uncritically and combines them with other basic concepts. Usually, these are physical and easily visualized. (What is a "journey"? It's a movement, from one physical place to another physical place.)

Two concepts that are "basic" can be combined into a third with little effort because the brain comprehends by internally mimicking the basic concepts when it hears them.

Therefore, "love" (the comfort of being held by mother or loved one) can be rehearsed at the same time that "journey" (movement to destination) is also rehearsed by the brain.

Here is Lakoff's "mapping" of the commonplace knowledge that supports the metaphor. Each sentence supports an emotionally meaningful basic concept and connects us to the next concept.

(The resulting motivational impact has similarities to HFI's PET approach to designing user experience. PET= Persuasion, Emotion, and Trust.)

  1. A Relationship is a Container (lovers are "in" the relationship).
  2. A Vehicle is a Container in which the Travelers are close together.
  3. Intimacy is Closeness.
  4. Lovers are Intimate.
  5. A Vehicle is an Instrument for Travel.
  6. And (therefore) Lovers are Travelers (on a journey).

We can diagram the brain-linked automatic associations like this:

Relationship ► Container ► Vehicle ►

Closeness ► Intimacy ► Lovers ► (in vehicle) ►

Travelers ► Journey

Our experience at the conscious level is the phrase "Love is a Journey".

But the neural foundations of metaphor, as described by Lakoff, suggests that the unconscious but more real experience is the visual and tactical outcome of Relationship ► Container ► Vehicle ► Closeness ► Intimacy ► Lovers ► (in vehicle) ► Travelers ► Journey.

For purposes of our visualizer-verbalizer Web customer, we conclude that the best tag lines reflect great metaphors.

And great metaphors reflect components that are literately "built in" to our brain circuits.

Tag lines for instant buzz

Let's look at Star Trek's tag line "To boldly go where no man has gone before".

  1. "Go" is always forward.
  2. Forward reflects "progress" and "advance" – both positive cultural values.
  3. "Where no man has gone before" indicates "unclaimed" and "unowned". (Therefore legitimate for the taking, for future profit and perhaps for personal delight.)
  4. "To boldly go" suggests purposefulness, such as a father or mother encourages in their child.

This brief analysis shows how the nervous system reacts spontaneously to the buzz words we have been trained to respect and act upon.

Visualizing our conclusion

In a sense this use of verbal text as a tag line illustrates the goal of "visualization".

It's also key to making words "short and sweet". Recall Shakespeare's Hamlet in which Polonius advises his son before a trip: "Brevity is the soul of wit"

The path to verbal brevity is visualization. (Ah, a verbalized visualization.)

In that sense, a good tag line entertains and delights us all.

So, have we answered our readers question?

"Usually, visitors to a website might either be a verbal or a visual learner. How do we design websites and GUI products keeping in mind the requirements of verbal and visual learners?"

Now we can give our new and best answer: Whether you're a visualizer, verbalizer, or just an ordinary person, you can jump on the bandwagon of a well-built metaphor.

Play tag, anyone?

Was that metaphor sufficiently touching?


Send us another question right now!


George Lakoff (2009). The Neural Theory of Metaphor. An earlier version appeared in: R. Gibbs, 2008, The Metaphor Handbook, Cambridge University Press.

Andrew L. Mendelson (2004). For Whom is a Picture Worth a Thousand Words? Effects of the Visualizing Cognitive Style and Attention on Processing of News Photos. Journal of Visual Literacy, 24 (1) 1-22

Message from the CEO, Dr. Eric Schaffer — The Pragmatic Ergonomist

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Reader comments

Quaid Suddoo

Very interesting article. Since I am just starting with an online business for losing weight, I could have used a little bit more visual, say in terms of diagrams. Then again I am new to the whole thing. I may have to ponder a little bit. Thank you.


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