Training design - Cathy Moore


What’s the real cost of eye candy?

“We need eye candy!” But at what cost? If we spend too much time on images, we don’t have time to create challenging activities. Will people really reject a text-only activity? Learn more.

What’s the real cost of eye candy?

When you’re designing a practice activity, such as a mini-scenario, your time and money are limited. So what should you prioritize?

A stakeholder might insist you create lots of graphics, also known as “eye candy.” However, making those images cuts into the time you need to design a challenging activity.

The cost of eye candy is often a too-easy activity. When I’m cranky, I’d say a lot of elearning suffers from this. It’s strong for the eyes but weak for the brain.

What would happen if we invested less in eye candy and more in designing deep challenges? Would this really bring about the apocalypse, as some stakeholders appear to think?

Let’s compare two activities

I created two activities to help instructional designers practice the initial conversation with their client. The goal is to steer the conversation away from “Make me a course” and toward “Help me solve this performance problem.” What happened when I spent hours creating graphics for one of the activities?

Activity 1: Graphics and slides ate my brain

I made this first activity many years ago using Keynote (like PowerPoint) and converting it to HTML5. The process was similar to using a slide-based tool.

Give it some time to load; it’s old and a little stiff. If you’re reading this in email or a feed reader, you may need to go to the blog site.

This is a weak activity. It’s way too easy and shallow. It was also a pain to build, requiring a separate flowchart to keep track of the branching. I’m embarrassed to say that it took me six hours to write and produce this, even though it has only six decision points. You can read more about the development in the original blog post.

Activity 2: Just one photo and lots more brain

Here’s the same type of conversation, but developed with just one photo and lots more branching. Can you win the client and avoid an information dump? Click the image to play the activity.

Screenshot of scenario-based training for instructional designers

I spent eight hours writing and producing this, two hours more than I spent developing the much simpler scenario. The simpler scenario has only six decision points and can be clicked through in seconds. This activity has 57 decision points, requires actual thought, and encourages exploration.

Edited to add: 57 decision points doesn’t mean players must make 57 decisions. It’s a branching scenario. There are multiple paths with multiple decision points. The average result is reached with 10-12 decisions. You can see the flowchart here.

I saved time by using a tool that makes it easy to manage branches and that combines writing and production (I first used BranchTrack and then switched to Twine for more control over the look and feel).

Another big savings came from not searching for multiple images showing Ann and Luis with subtly different expressions. Since many stock photos show overacted expressions, I probably would have ended up doing a custom photo shoot with some friends, cutting drastically into my design time and spending others’ time as well. However, for the type of discussion in the scenario, seeing every eyebrow twitch isn’t necessary, so photos aren’t necessary.

It’s not just the tool, it’s the priorities.

Using the right tool definitely helped — it was far easier to manage the branching in Twine.

However, for the second activity, I also decided that I didn’t need to find multiple photos, create an order-taker meter, and strain my limited graphic design skills to arrange everything on the slide. I quickly found one stock photo, lightened it a bit, and spent the rest of my time writing a more subtle, realistic challenge.

Test it on your learners!

You might be thinking, “But everyone expects our stuff to look snazzy!” Maybe they’re used to bling, but they could discover that they prefer more substance.

Try testing a subtle, text-only decision-making activity on some learners. Maybe try a branching scenario that requires them to deal with an employee called Bob, whose “Just kidding!” snarky comments are inspiring complaints, but don’t include photos of Bob or anyone else. If it’s a strong activity, people will immediately dig into it, chasing after the best ending. When they’re done, ask them, “Do you care that you never saw a photo of Bob?”

I do that in my scenario design course. I send participants to a downright ugly text-only scenario without any preparation. When they come back to the discussion, they want to talk about the ending they got. When I ask if they cared that there was no picture of the person in the story, almost everyone says they didn’t care. They were too interested in solving the problem. They easily imagined the person, and some say that a picture would actually interfere.

I’ve seen it work.

I’ve also seen this work in the field, with cross-cultural training in the US Army. You might be familiar with the graphically rich Haji Kamal activity. That was one part of a large project. We also developed several other branching scenarios that were just text printed on paper, with directions like “Turn to page 9” next to an option. The paper scenarios were popular with the same demographic, at one point inspiring so much discussion that the bell rang to end class and they didn’t want to leave.

So before you believe “They’ll reject it if it doesn’t have slick graphics!” test a strong text-only scenario on your learners.

Photos can add problems

Unnecessary photos of people can even create problems. Each person in a photo is a specific race, age, and gender, which someone might interpret in ways we don’t intend. Each person is wearing clothes that can quickly look dated or are too culturally specific. I’ve heard that many stock photos look “too American.”

What I’m not saying

I’m not saying, “Lots of eye candy is a sign of a fluffy activity” or “Lack of eye candy is a sign of a challenging activity.” I’m saying that we all have a limited budget of time and money. The amount of that budget that we spend on bling takes away from what we could spend on writing challenging, subtle activities.

Also, obviously, some activities absolutely require graphics, such as questions like, “Which end of this widget needs realignment?” And more emotionally-rich scenarios need real photos of people with subtle expressions or even video, because in the real world we’d base our decisions partly on the emotion that people seem to be expressing.

I’m also not talking about information presentations, which can easily require graphics. I’m talking about practice activities that require people to make realistic decisions, which I think should be the bulk of what we create, once we’ve determined that training is really the solution.

What do you think? Are you pressured to include more eye candy than you think is useful? Have you tested a text-only practice activity? Let us know in the comments.

Meeting room photo by Complete Interior Design via Compfight cc

Learn more

Build your performance consulting skills
with new tips and content for teams

Stop being an order taker and help your clients solve the real problem. The Partner from the Start toolkit helps you change how you talk to stakeholders, find the real causes of the problem, and determine what type of training (if any!) will help.

The toolkit has recently been expanded:

  • Many new examples as mini-practice activities (more than 50 total)
  • New tips for writing goals, actions, and analysis notes
  • For team leaders:
    • 125 discussion questions — download the customizable PowerPoint deck
    • Tips for coaching new action mappers and embedding the practice in your organization

Sign up yourself or a team, with team discounts. Learn more.



19 comments on “What’s the real cost of eye candy?

Comments are closed.

  1. Very interesting article. I regularly have in mind whether it’s worth spending so much time finding and editing images for elearning activities and whether this is the best use of time. I do agree with some of your points, however, I think that text-only based scenarios can easily suffer from the ‘wall of text’ engagement-killer, where the learner quickly switches off because there is nothing visually interesting to keep their attention. They see a large requirement for reading and are bored after the first sentence – especially if the scenario is about some boring meeting they might have to have with a manager in another office. Snore-worthy in real life, let alone in a pretend scenario.

    So although I agree that every eyebrow change isn’t necessary to show, I think it helps if the learner can see some sort of interest in completing the scenario. Some people are happy to read large paragraphs, but I would suggest that after 57 different choices the best of us would get bored. We all know that lack of engagement is a serious problem in elearning, and moving away from click and read is something we have all worked really hard to move past. I personally hate over-exaggerated expressions on photographed models – it looks cheesy and dated. But there are other ways of visually expressing a scenario. And sometimes the time spent is worth it to keep the learner engaged.

    1. I see your point of view. I too hate walls of text. But it all depends on the learner’s motivation. If he/she sees the training as something that will bring him a benefit, that he can apply, he’ll have the courage to read. It’s only a wall of text if I don’t care about it. If I care, it’s a treasure trove of juicy stuff I can use…
      Of course, if you have the budget, great content *plus* good visuals is the best of all possible worlds (as in, it’s better to be rich and healthy…)

  2. I actually gave up after the 2 choices in the second activity. Too much to read to hold reader’s attention. Keep in mind many of us do not read long paragraphs. I do think there needs to be more engaging design in this activity.

  3. Good post.

    I used to share the demo below years ago when I talked about how an engaging scenario could get away without lots of graphic design. It’s in line with what you’re saying.

    I don’t completely agree with the article, though. E-learning is a mostly visual medium so combining the appropriate graphics with engaging scenarios is a good move. Calling the investment in graphic design “eye candy” diminishes its value. It’s not the eye candy, it’s the lack of investment made in creating the visuals to support the content.

    The reality is that course developer and graphic designer are two different roles with different disciplines. I think your post does raise some good conversation about how little many organizations invest in their course development. When instructional designers with little graphic design skills have to do everything in their course the outcome is probably courses that don’t fully leverage the power of great visual communication. My guess is they do spend too much time on the eye candy to the detriment of the quality of the scenario.

    1. I agree with your reply. I think elearning developers can develop more than one skill. They don’t have to just be instructional designers or just be graphic designers. They can use the role to expand their skills base. Learn about graphic design if they have a learning theory background. I don’t always think that you need to employ a lot of people to create elearning.

  4. I got bored and frustrated with the second example. It dragged on too long, many of the options looked very similar (just different ways of saying the same things). I’m not even sure how far through I got because there’s no indication of progress or length, which makes the conversation feel endless.

    Not saying the first example was brilliant, it was completely at the other extreme – very brief and not a lot of meat to it.

    I get where you’re coming from with this. The second example didn’t need all the different expressions, in fact I pretty much ignored them in the first example in favour of reading the text, but the second example lacked a feeling of progression. There was no discernible end in sight, which is demotivating when you’ve clicked to make a bunch of decisions and all you get is more of the same. I think a balance between the two would be ideal.

  5. Cathy,

    Enjoyed this post. I put together a simple demo of a text-only decision-making activity using TWINE and Articulate Storyline 360 on my site. If your readers are interested, they should stop by and take a look. This demo requires some knowledge of the Simple Triage and Rapid Treatment (START) method to make the right decisions. Thanks for stopping by and commenting on the post Cathy!

  6. I appreciate an important point made in this discussion that e-learning is mostly a visual medium. Calling it eye candy does seem to diminish its value or importance. At times, a primarily text based blog is applicable and sufficient, although this is not often the audience’s preference. Let’s face it that most audiences whether in corporate or educational settings expect e-learning to con-tain a good amount of visual content. This is because visual mediums are more interesting and seem easier to learn content from, as opposed to a lot of text reading. Today’s online audiences from internet marketing to student populations prefer rich visual content. Therefore, I believe it is imperative that instructional designers do not disappoint them.

  7. Cathy,
    I enjoyed the comparison between the two activities. I think it is important to remember that if the activity pertains to you or your business it would hold the participants attention longer. I did find myself lost in the wordiness of the second activity, but if it was associated with my profession or interest I would have been more attentive. I agree that some activities in e-learning can become overwhelmed with visuals, taking away from the true scenario or message and leaving the participant focused on the supporting material. Don’t get me wrong, images are very effective and support visual thinking, so something needs to be in place to create aesthetic balance. When I was working as a graphic designer, it was important for the viewer to solve the message quickly and effectively, simplicity can be powerful and not overwhelming. Stock photographs can create unnecessary emotions, and if its eating away at your time, it doesn’t make sense to utilize them. I stand by the saying “less is more”.

  8. I’m of the opinion that we live in a world that has imposed upon us the need for compelling visuals. In their absence, learners find it difficult to connect with the information that is being presented. However, in contrast, I do agree that graphics can send a message that you, as the designer, never intended. For example, I have created instructional material and spent hours sifting through stock photos in order to find graphics of children from multiple ethnicities. My goal was to promote diversity because I feared seeming partial to one ethnicity if others seemed underrepresented in my work. In hindsight, the amount of time that I spent searching for graphics was much more significant than the time I spent actually devising the text. In essence, it’s always ideal to strive for a balance between the use of graphics and text. Ultimately, it is important to consider whether the graphics add meaning to the text or hinder it.

  9. Thanks, Cathy.

    A very timely post for me as we are creating a scenario to be used as part of an instructor led session. We had initially decided to use talking head video as the main way of delivering the material, but have now sat down to reconsider the pros and cons!

  10. Thanks, Cathy! Makes nice reading despite the lack of eye candy 🙂 I believe instructional designers just have to face it: people don’t read texts anymore. However, this fact doesn’t undermine the importance of text. On the contrary, it makes every single character as valuable as ever. My personal e-Learning utopia is clear, concise wording along with relevant well-crafted infographics. For a more elaborate description, the teacher should stick around to respond to specific queries and have an up-to-date list of references and recommended literature handy.

  11. Cathy I just discovered your site and LOVE it. So excited to join the party.

    I’m totally with you. Text only can be very powerful. People are engaged by learning, not by really pretty but ineffective instructional design.

    Another point I like to make to my employer (and I’m getting better at it) is that instructional design does not equal graphic design. I’m not a terrible graphic designer, and I enjoy drawing, but my unique skill set is in designing effective learning experiences. I can always hire a graphic designer, photographer, illustrator, or other appropriate specialist if the work calls for it and the budget allows it. We even have an in-house graphic arts department we can draw from (and photographers and videographers).

  12. Something we don’t always consider is the difference between Information Design and Graphic Design. Graphics in eLearning are great, but they need to be used so that we end up witn sound Information Design. That’s the key difference between good graphics and “eye candy.” As a former technical writer, I’ve had training in Information Design – that’s probably why I see the difference. BTW, Information Design is not the same thing as “infographics” – it has more to do with usability. Interesting thing to read up on (yes, reading that involves text…)!

  13. Hi Cathy,

    I agree with your main point – great graphics may help with “engagement,” but does not necessarily lead to learning unless the graphics serve a purpose. The time and effort spent on making training look “amazing” (which is a very subjective standard) could be better spent elsewhere.

    That said, in the second example you provide, I would argue if you want to go with that version, elearning would not be the best modality for it. There’s no audio, video, or significant interaction, so why use elearning if you aren’t using the features that differentiate it from other modalities?

    Creating a self-study guide using the same text and design would work well, and people are used to reading large amounts of text in that modality. You could still have branching by having learners turn to different pages based on their decision (like the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” books).

    This way you create essentially the same training at a fraction of the cost of time.

    1. Steve, thanks for your comment. In response to your concerns about the second example, I get your point that people are used to reading more extensively on paper, so if the audience can be given or sent physical packets of paper, a printed version is definitely worth considering. I’ve produced printed versions of branching scenarios, which we distributed at a face-to-face session and had people debate in small groups.

      Unfortunately, it takes significantly longer to produce a paper version than aversion in Twine or another online tool, at least in my painful experience. As far as I know, there’s no automated way to crank out a branching scenario, with for example “turn to page X” automatically inserted and page X automatically created. You have to first write the scenario in a flowchart or scenario tool, and then essentially copy and paste it into Word or another text program, inserting page breaks and adding (and checking!) all the “Turn to page X” instructions. So in my experience the cost savings are in doing it online in a tool designed for branching scenarios, and the savings are huge.

      With that said, I agree that a printed version can be better for reading, and I’ve seen them work well. If there’s a system that would make them cheaper to produce, it would be even better.