Bells & whistles vs. visual communication

Been reading a lot of stuff lately about cognitive overload. Wondering what your thoughts are on stuff like animations and snazzier-looking slide designs (and even special audio stuff like lots of sound effects).

In the past, most of my work has been fairly low on the bells-and-whistles meter, but I've been thinking that there's some value in making things look and behave in a more visually interesting way. But on the other side of the aisle, it seems like a lot of designers are kind of poo-pooing courses that have too much glitz. How do I know when it's too much? Are there best practices for such things?

15 Replies
Cindy Hollister

I think animations are great, but only when they help convey the meaning of the content. Otherwise they just end up being distracting. Have you seen the Articulate Guru winning course? I like how they used animations to make the content easy to understand. Here it is if you want to take a look: http://www.articulate.com/blog/how-e-mersion-earned-gold-in-the-articulate-guru-awards/

Carla Stewart

A lot of times it will depend on the types of courses you're designing. If you're doing more presenting, viewing, type courses, then having something subtle (Ken Burns style http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ken_Burns_effect ) might really be effective.

We do the occasional text animations at the beginning of chapters but only for "intro" effects and to transition into a new module. For actual learning content we don't animated text but we do fade images in and out. For graphics it makes sense for us because we're bringing graphics in and out during the narration.

Ardi Collins

One of the reasons I enjoy shows like The Office is because there's always something going on beyond the main actors. If you watch the actors at their desks, in the background shots, there's usually something going on with their monitors, their facial expressions and so on. I like that I miss something from the original viewing because it's enjoyable.

Most of the courses we create - 90% or more - are compliance courses. We create elearning more for presenting compliance training in engaging ways. I'd worry more about cognitive overload, bells and whistles if we were designing AP Chemistry classes for motivated students. But for us, the bells and whistles are what keeps the Code of Conduct interesting.

Example? Insider Trading. We began each chapter with audio loops of prison bars slamming shut. Images included things like chat clouds over silhouette characters. Written in comic book fonts we had sayings like "I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth..." I haven't violated any..." SLAMMER! Anyway, it was fun and most folks like it.

If you're not creating performance courses, HAVE FUN with your courses!

James Brown

Part of my studies at Boise State involved the cognitive load theory and I tend to think the bells and whistles are cool when you use them for say the title slide or closing but you must ask yourself, "Are the bells and whistles helpful or hindering?" It's a proven fact that brain can only absorb so much information and as an instructional designer and e-learning developer you must maximize the transfer of knowledge. This is only accomplished by understanding effective presentation techniques such as music in the background, minimal text to reinforce what is being presented, and voice narration. Remember as the designer you have only a few seconds to capture the persons interest and the information will either go into long term memory or it will be jettisoned as trivial information.

Mark Brown

QUOTE: [ Been reading a lot of stuff lately about cognitive overload. Wondering what your thoughts are on stuff like animations and snazzier-looking slide designs (and even special audio stuff like lots of sound effects). ]

An important consideration is how many times will a student revisit the material. By the 3rd time all they want is the information fast. Least clicks, easy navigation. If the e-learning is also used as a management directive, to make some point on a policy like a sexual harassment course or a quasi-sales pitch, then the fluff is tolerable so long as it is relevant. This is usually shown on a long reoccurring schedule.

 Sounds can by annoying, and not everyone can hear. Beware of  flashy/strobes they can trigger seizures in some people.

Hugh Gardner

I think one thing to watch for is "mission creep".  Basically if you use it to get their attention for something very important it can be good.  But if you use it again and again, they will start to tune it out or it no longer gets their attention.  I've seen that a lot where you start by using a callout or animated pointer for a special topic and then they want you to add it to more and more items, and next thing you know every interaction has a red border, a bouncing arrow and making noises. 

David Anderson

Mark Brown said:

QUOTE: [ Been reading a lot of stuff lately about cognitive overload. Wondering what your thoughts are on stuff like animations and snazzier-looking slide designs (and even special audio stuff like lots of sound effects). ]

An important consideration is how many times will a student revisit the material. By the 3rd time all they want is the information fast. Least clicks, easy navigation. 


That's an interesting point, Mark. Do you think most designers focus more on the initial learner "experience" or take future reviews into consideration?

Is it possible to create the same experience designing for both objectives? Or is there a trade-off?

Mark Brown

I feel most do think about the initial experience too much. It's our nature to want to wow our clients. Rightfully so, we worked hard and part of our reward is the satisfaction of being appreciated. However once wowed, what's next? After the honeymoon the marriage starts and we need to design around functionality and (this is tough one to wrap your mind around) COMPATIBILITY.

By this I mean the people demographics (age, education level, job type) not IT issues like firewalls.

Currently my users are 55+ , blue-collar, don't have pcs at home and are happy to live without them.

They are resistant to e-learning and any fluff will come under scrutiny. I have to give them the most important information fast to grab their attention and prove, "this is not stupid". However, new employess (30 somethings) ask, "can I just view this on my blackberry?"

Making the fit is tough, many times the client has no clue who works for them at the personal level.

In some of my courses I have had to launch two versions. The fun learning course and the 2nd a glossary broken down to specifics for quick reference. Articulates modular deign is very useful here.

Rebecca Cuevas

Love this question...as it's at the very heart of the intersection of technology and learning. There are three types of cognitive load:

  • intrinsic
  • extrinsic
  • germane

Intrinsic cognitive load is the kind that comes with the subject matter. Organic chemistry and rocket science have high intrinsic cognitive load.

Extrinsic cognitive load is the kind that comes with the presentation of the subject matter. Learning the ABC's might be easy (low intrinsic cognitive load) but if the lesson is packaged in a complex learning interface, then it becomes difficult (unnecessary --extrinsic-- cognitive load having been added).

Germane cognitive load has to do with the learner's engagement in the learning task. This is where the issue of animations, drag and drop and so on is most relevant. The point of adding interactive features is to increase learner involvement (increase germane cognitive load to the optimal point). The problem is finding that optimal point.

For example, I tried creating an interaction using Engage... it worked beautifully from an instructional design point of view to clarify the concept in an engaging way (germane cognitive load was just right). BUT.. the technology got in the way. That slide would not load on my iPhone and stopped the presentation cold. Some users could not figure out how to click on the checkboxes, so they did not see the presentation the way it was meant to be seen. The slide performed very differently on differentdevices, and even on the same device at different times.

Is there a way around this? I am just now learning how to use Articulate 360 and that was my first Engage slide. Maybe it's user error on my part... any suggestions will be much appreciated.

https://360.articulate.com/review/content/f33ef84e-2cff-44be-937d-b1d3e6103af8/review

But if the problem is just the way the slide works, and not something I did, then I would say from a cognitive load point of view, it would be better not to use that slide. When it works it's great, but most of the time it did not work and so even though under ideal conditions it decreased intrinsic cognitive load and optimized germane cognitive load, the problem is that due to tech and usability issues, it mainly ended up increasing extrinsic cognitive load.

I find it's helpful to be able to focus on which  kind of cognitive load is doing what, in order to sort out these issues. 

http://www.ucs.mun.ca/~bmann/0_ARTICLES/CogLoad_Kirschner02.pdf