Evolving Customer Preferences and Methods for Communicating Content Visually

Edward Bryant
Written by Edward Bryant
on April 18, 2012

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).

Chart of local school district property tax rates

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.

example of a portion of a timeline of the corporate structure of automotive manufacturers

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.).

Maps: Maps provide a method to better communicate geographic locations, proximity, and clustering. For example, showing tax districts, economic incentive zones, or court jurisdictions.

Map of effective federal income tax rates by zip code published by the Tax Foundation

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.

A portion of an infographic on multitasking published by Rasmussen College

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.

Mind map showing relationships between corporate law concepts

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.

and many others.

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?


There have been made comments on this article

  1. Ornella on at

    Very good post Edward. I absolutely agree: we need to display our content in a more attractive and quickly readable way. For example we are thinking and trying what we can do with some post search filters: dates or range of dates can be proposed graphically as clickable histogram bars, where the height represents the number of resulting documents/occurrences. Of course this should be done in an appropriate GUI context, to let all the interface components be in harmony with those graphical representations.

  2. Thanks Ornella. I agree that there is a lot of potential innovation that can be done in how content is navigated. However, I think there is less awareness that similar innovations can add value to the content itself.

  3. Dan on at

    A good overview of ways to demonstrate new content and ideas. These visual additions to legal publishing will only enhance the current information and will make it easier for users to find related information. Additionally, this will all look better on mobile devices and other platforms that a typical computer screen as they can be made interactive. It would be great to be able to see a recent document on a mind map and trace it back with a touch screen – opening each document with a finger swipe.

  4. Tom Timperio on at

    Great article. Heat Maps are also a useful way to organize and present large data sets. They can also be used to drill-down into information.

  5. Tom Hood on at

    Edward, Great post! I like the reference to the digital natives which I agree with completely. In our Leadership training we always say that a leader must be able to make their thinking visible to others in a way that others can easily grasp. Your examples are all good new and I would add a big whiteboard, butcher paper or even our large graphic wall charts that serve as cognitive thinking templates.

    Thanks for the post,


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