May 2011

What do instructional designers and advertising gurus have in common?

By Patricia Kyle PhD, Director, LearnAbility and CrossKnowledge Group Partner. According to Wikipedia, advertising is “a form of communication intended to persuade an audience (viewers, readers or listeners) to purchase or take some action upon products, ideas, or services“. I hesitate to define instructional design, a term that that is often debated, but it’s easy to draw comparisons between the role of the instructional designer and the advertising guru.

Both aim to engage audiences in such a way that important messages are taken on board, eliciting some change of behaviour. In the case of advertising, the desired change of behaviour might be to adopt new purchasing preferences, while the goal of the instructional design expert might be to encourage learners to understand and take on board new ways of working. The effective advertiser and the effective instructional designer use similar techniques to achieve their aims, often drawing on the wisdom of psychologists.


“The effective advertiser and the effective instructional designer use similar techniques to achieve their aims.”


For example, German Psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus’ pioneering research work on memory has influenced advertisers and teachers alike for over a hundred years. Take his work on “serial position effects” – also referred to as the primacy and regency effects. Without going into the science, the basic message here is that people tend to commit to memory more information from the beginning of a sequence compared to later on – that’s the primacy effect.


But there is also a tendency to remember information from the end of a sequence – the recency effect. The advertiser might think about the position of his advert in a sequence of TV commercials, or its position within a magazine, while the effective instructional designer realises the importance of opening messages and topic summaries. Similarly by keeping sections short, they can increase learning by introducing more opportunities for the desired ’primacy’ and ’recency’ effects to occur.


“People remember things that stand out.”


The “von Restorff Effect” (Hedwig von Restorff, German psychologist, 1933) is another principle exploited by shrewd advertisers. Simply put, the effect is in action when people remember things that stand out – people naturally give increased attention to distinctive items. In the advertising world this might relate to distinctive packaging or unusual advertising campaigns, while the savvy instructional designer might choose to use striking, unexpected imagery, unusual sentence constructions or highlighting. Highlighting is an effective way to draw attention to specific words or images, but only if applied appropriately, e.g. if it’s all bold, then nothing stands out! Colour highlighting is good method, but it should be used sparingly using few colours.


The “Picture Superiority Effect” is used to advantage by the advertiser and instructional designer alike. According to the much researched theory, concepts are much more likely to be remembered experientially if they are presented as pictures rather than as words. Furthermore, memory for pictures and words presented together is superior to either presented alone, but it’s important to take heed of the effect of proximity – elements that are close together are perceived to be more related than elements that are far apart. Grouping similar elements is a powerful way to help learners build associations, so experienced instructional designers use the proximity rule when laying out visuals and associated text, headings and so on for maximum learning.


“Unnecessary elements decrease a design’s efficiency and increase the possibility of unanticipated consequence.”


“Occam’s razor” (a principle attributed to the 14th-century English logician, theologian and Franciscan friar Father William of Ockham) asserts that “Entities should not be multiplied without necessity”. A modern interpretation is that unnecessary elements decrease a design’s efficiency and increase the possibility of unanticipated consequences. To the contemporary advertiser, this means keeping your copy and design clear, giving a clear and specific call to action.


To the instructional designer… well it’s often much the same. The simplest explanation is often the best one – in trying to understand something, getting unnecessary information out of the way is the fastest way to the most effective explanation.


This brings me on to another principle in the toolkit of winning advertisers which is all about maximising the “Signal-to-Noise ratio”. Whether the goal is effective advertising or effective learning, noise is no-go. Noise reduces clarity by diluting useful information with useless information – excess padding or extraneous design features. Learning, or signal clarity, is improved through simple and concise language and the presentation of simple visuals that are uncluttered by unnecessary elements. Meanwhile, the design of necessary elements should be minimised as far as possible without compromising the key learning messages. Think simplicity rather than bells and whistles!


This month’s article highlights just a handful of effective instructional design techniques, all based on sound research and exploited by the top advertising gurus, but coupled together they provide a basis for powerful e-learning design.


Patricia Kyle PhD
Director, LearnAbility, and Partner, CrossKnowledge Group