Digital Machiavelli #8: Visual Hurdles
Grabbing and holding attention with a scrolling-addicted audience.
Welcome back to my ongoing digital content strategy course, delivered straight to your inbox every other week.
What You’ll Learn Today: The different kinds of visual hurdles you can employ in your written content, and why they’re essentially mandatory in 2022.
My initial idea was to create separate issues to cover lists, images, and other interruptions in the flow of text content, but they’re all ultimately visual hurdles.
Whether you’re inserting a contextual image, an animated GIF, or a list, you’re breaking up the flow of text, which helps readers retain focus over the long run.
Unlike headings, visual hurdles don’t contribute to the content hierarchy, but they can draw sharper attention to specific information or sentiments you really want to relay to your readers.
Lists as Visual Hurdles
The first thing that comes to mind when thinking of a list is its logical structure. After all, the whole point of a list is to group together concise points, names, or whatever other subject matter.
But when it comes to digital content, and in the midst of the Attention Economy, lists offer more than just that basic value.
Quintessentially a list accomplishes three things.
It helps the reader remember things, so long as the list isn’t too long
It gives the reader a break in the narrative flow, which helps refocus
And it provides a visual interruption on the page, serving as an anchor point
All three of these are useful, but it’s the visual hurdle function that lies at the foundation here, with the other benefits stacking on top after the reader’s attention is caught at the highest level, purely visually.
The reader’s interaction with a list can be broken down along the same lines but in reverse.
Visual Interruption: First and foremost, the reader latches on to the list with his eyes, narrowing his focus for a time and making him more receptive
Break in the Narrative: The reader then gets the benefit of a cognitive interruption, helping him avoid the attention burnout that can come from following a narrative thread for too long
Remembering Things: And finally, the reader gets to have an easier time remembering the information provided, especially if you’ve limited your list to three or five elements
Case in point, the above list provided all three of those benefits, with the added bonus of providing order context.
Images as Visual Hurdles
Now that we’ve gotten the relative complexity of lists out of the way, images are a much simpler but no less effective form of visual hurdle.
A static image can certainly be something entertaining, but more often than not you’ll be inserting a boring, unmoving image asset to illustrate some data points on a chart, present a screenshot, or provide some other form of informative context.
Similarly to lists, static images provide both a visual interruption and a break in the narrative, but whether or not they’ll be memorable differs from image to image and depends on your ability to produce things like visually compelling graphs.
Unlike static images and the logic behind them, which remains largely the same in digital content, print content, and anything in between, animated GIFs are exclusive to online content such as blog posts and e-mails.
GIFs draw a reader’s attention like nothing else on a typical web page, most often providing some comic relief or a visual aid to illustrate something that can only be shown through motion.
They’re unlikely to be memorable long-term, but in the moment they serve as invaluable tools to both entertain and help engrain the underlying point you’re trying to make in the reader’s associative memory.
Headings as Visual Hurdles
While headings have their own distinct role in the content hierarchy, they also happen to serve the purpose of visual interruption.
Every time you as the reader come across a heading, your mental faculties breathe a sigh of relief, as the previous narrative thread has finally been wrapped up, making room for something new and exciting.
I thought about creating some screenshots to illustrate this dynamic, but I’m quite certain this very section of this very post will serve that purpose just fine in itself.
After all, we’re four paragraphs in, and there hasn’t been a single image, list, quote block, or any other element to break up the flow of text — and that’s exactly why the following heading will act as a pressure relief valve, informing you through your peripheral vision that this section is coming to a close before you even read it.
Fundamentally, text gradually weakens the reader’s focus, while visual hurdles reset that focus. It’s this dynamic that makes them so important in information architecture.
To use visual hurdles effectively, it’s important to strike a balance.
You don’t want to oversaturate your content with images, lists, and other visually compelling elements, as you still need a cohesive overarching narrative.
But you also definitely want to avoid an insufficient number of such elements, because in the early decades of the XXI century, you can rest assured that nobody has the time or patience to appreciate a huge wall of text, however carefully crafted and insightful it may be.