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Signaling Principle

If you’ve ever opened up a responsive website, seen a movie with good cinematography, or taken in any other well-designed media, you’ll notice that your eyes are instantly drawn to certain areas and follow a natural path that smoothly guides your experience.

This was done on purpose.

Designers, cinematographers, writers, editors, and others spend countless hours to make their end product a thing of beauty that not only presents the information, but does so in a coherent way. Essentially, they try to follow Richard E. Mayer’s Signaling Principle: “People learn better when cues that highlight the organization of the essential material are added.”

For instance, which of these would you rather read?

text without signaling principle text with signaling principle

If you chose the one on the right, you’d be in the majority. But why? Both texts say the same thing, so should it matter?

The key difference is that the text at the left globs together into one giant mass of words. There are no breaks so we instinctively feel as though we are supposed read it all in one go, no breaths or pauses in between, which is intimidating. It’s a sad but true reality that our brains can look at a difficult task like this and just say, “Nope. Too hard,” and check out early while we’re left to babble and sputter Porky Pig-style at the approaching legion of letters.

The second block of text, meanwhile, looks much more manageable for the same reason spreading peas around your dinner plate will make your mom think you’ve eaten more than you actually have. By separating the text into smaller chunks through the use of headings and images, the page looks more like three easy chunks instead of a full page of prose. Nearly anything can be used to break up the text. Cutout people, stock imagery, illustrations, line work, or even just space could make large amounts of text more visually appealing.

It also helps to highlight, circle, or otherwise indicate important points when they are surrounded by a full paragraph. This way, the learner can skim for the important stuff and browse the supplemental pieces at will.

Anything we missed? How do you use the signaling principle in your eLearning design? Let us know in the comments!


12 Principles of Multimedia Series, #2

Enjoying this series? We have more!

#1 – Trimming the Fat for More Coherent eLearning

Next: #3 – The Principle of Redundancy Principle

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