Why visuals are critical in educational materials

Words are usually the way that the public is educated about health messages. However, this is a problem for a few reasons:

  • It’s estimated that 1 in 5 patients have literacy issues (1), making reading difficult.
  • Most wordy educational materials are never read (Beaumont PhD, p. 249).
  • The information is in one language which is a problem for educating multicultural audiences.

Images can communicate to people of any language, are more engaging and can communicate information in a specific way that words cannot (imagine navigating a new town without a map, or building a house without blueprints). However, getting the right image can be difficult. And when most health materials are developed without designers, with limited budgets and lack of time, words are the easier way of communicating. In fact, in a review of over 100 breast cancer detection materials and websites, less than 10% of them used educational images at all. Despite this, 89% of patients prefer visual materials to non-graphic material.

To understand the process of detection, the designer went through the full detection process herself. She acted as a patient in several clinics, got a mammogram, and interviewed several healthcare professionals in the US and UK in their environments to compare different systems. This was done to understand how to communicate the process to patients in a way that was simple yet specific enough to help patients participate in the process and catch errors when certain steps or options weren't offered.

An example of this is demonstrated in the design of a patient pathway chart below, with the top one using text and lines, and the bottom one using images of people in a simple step-by-step view:

By illustrating the steps of breast cancer detection as a series of interactions with people and results, it provides the patient with a "big picture" view of the whole process. This helps them understand where they currently are in the process and the options that are available to them. When patients clearly understand the detection journey, they are more likely to participate in it and anxiety over the unknown in reduced—all through the help of good design!