Content produced for research products for professionals has traditionally been heavy on plain text, such as an explanation of the reasoning behind a legal concept or how a particular tax is applied. Beyond the use of a few tables (perhaps more than a few in the area of tax and accounting), little of this content could be described as “visual.” The idea of presenting content in a more visual style has traditionally been limited to graphic design that might make the text more readable (e.g., margins, bullet lists, asides). However, the concept of visual learning suggests the use of more visual-oriented alternatives can more effectively communicate content to customers.
Visual learning is the method of communicating content graphically through a greater use of visual displays. The relevance of visual learning coincides with a generational preference among “digital natives” (i.e., people who have grown up surrounded by an increasingly rich multimedia digital environment) for more visual presentations of information. Research involving the use of visual learning has largely focused on its use in an educational setting but as new generations of more visual-oriented attorneys, accountants, and other professionals enter the market, publishers will need to adapt.
The expectations and demands for more visual presentations of content can already be seen in the popularity of products like Smart Charts, which dynamically generate charts that allow users to quickly access information and make comparisons. What other ways might content for professionals be presented more visually? Below are just a few possibilities to consider:
Charts: Charts are not exactly uncommon and there are a number of types available to display all kinds of information. Although they are commonly used among business professionals to summarize financial data, they are under-utilized as a way to teach or explain legal and regulatory topics. Charts can be especially useful when describing overlapping data (e.g., the various taxes and regulatory fees that are layered onto phone services), changes over time (e.g., increases and decreases in tax rates), or to make comparisons (e.g., tax rates in different areas).
Timelines: Timelines display a series of events over time and have the additional advantage of being very familiar to most customers. There are several examples where timelines would be especially useful for explaining legal and regulatory information, such as displaying amendments to a statute (i.e., point-in-time), changes in tax rates, changes in corporate structures, or regulatory deadlines.
Videos: Video has the advantage of being able to combine other visual displays into a single unit. Videos seem best suited to communicate topics in which a customer may wish to follow along, such as product training videos, an explanation of completing a government form, or demonstrating regulatory compliance issues (government crash tests, workplace safety, etc.).
Infographics: Infographics summarize a topic or concept using a combination of static visual elements and they have become a very popular method to spread information on complex topics. There are many popular examples including, infographics on payroll and tax deductions, the related generational shift toward multitasking, or even the topic of infographics itself.
Mind maps: Mind maps are a specific type of chart used to show the connections between concepts. Mind maps seem especially relevant to explanations of complex legal and regulatory concepts because they allow a customer to get a bird’s eye view of a complex subject. Mind maps are especially useful to visually explain the relationships between multiple legal concepts that do not easily fit into a typical outline structure commonly used by a series of narrative paragraphs.
Tag clouds: Tag clouds, a common feature on blogs, are very effective for quickly displaying the relative frequency of various items (usually terms) through font size and color. Examples include using tag clouds to display trends in news stories, speeches, or reveal the major topics within large complex legislation.
How the above methods are employed is also important. Depending on the circumstances, they may replace the need for, provide an alternative to, or supplement text content. Can you think of other useful examples or visual methods I didn’t mention above?