Beyond words

The written word dominates how we communicate on the web, but many of us struggle with it. This makes understanding financial services even harder. We need more than words if we want to treat everyone fairly.
A video version of this article (Source)

Summary

  • Text is the dominant content format on the web. It’s widely accessible and efficient to create.
  • However, if you have comprehension difficulties, text can create a barrier to understanding.
  • This is a timely issue for financial service firms because there’s increasing pressure from the FCA to communicate with customers in ways they can understand.
  • Images and videos are alternative content formats that can improve comprehension.
  • The financial service industry is now beginning to see the importance of these other formats.
  • When we use images and videos, they need to be accessible.
  • Images and videos aren’t just for those with comprehension difficulties. They can help everyone understand complicated financial concepts.
  • By improving comprehension, we can help people make informed financial decisions, get support when they need it, and reach better outcomes.

Illustration of a page of text and a thumbs-down

Why text dominates

There’s a variety of reasons why text is the default content format on the web:

  • Legacy. The language of the World Wide Web, HyperText Markup Language (HTML), was designed to share text documents. It was several years before it included an official way to add images to a document. Today, a website’s text content is still a key factor for search engine ranking.
  • Accessibility. When combined with different assistive technology, text can be used by a wide range of people. People with hearing difficulties can read it. People with sight impairments can listen to it using screen readers. Or, if they use screen magnifiers instead, text still behaves well.
  • Efficiency. Writing text is quick, it’s easy to update and you don’t need any specialist tools.

While these reasons are valid, text has limitations.

Illustration of a page of text and a thumbs-down

The problem with text

Capital One has done some great work on identifying and categorising vulnerabilities that affect users of financial services. One such vulnerability category is “Comprehension Difficulty”.

People who struggle to comprehend often have difficulties with one or more the following:

  • Reading accuracy and/or word recognition
  • Vocabulary knowledge
  • Speed of processing
  • Attention and concentration

People may have these difficulties if they have a neurodiverse condition, such as dyslexia, attention deficit disorder (ADD), or developmental language difficulties (DLD). Or, a person may have difficulty with vocabulary because English is an additional language.

These difficulties can cause people to re-read sentences several times to try to understand them, leaving them tired, confused and anxious.

A person’s ability to process and comprehend large amounts of text is affected by something called their “working memory”.

Working memory is a person’s ability to hold information temporarily and manipulate it. It’s a valuable resource but its capacity is limited and it can become overloaded. When this happens to a reader, they are forced to go back to the beginning – which can be exhausting.

Readers may also have difficulty with something called “comprehension monitoring”. In these cases, people can be unaware when their understanding has broken down.

Improving text and its presentation can of course make reading, and comprehension, easier. Good typography, plain English and breaking up content with headings all help. We can also promote comprehension monitoring by summarising and highlighting key points.

But we should use alternative strategies to help people understand better, whether they have comprehension difficulties or not.

Illustration of a bank and an exclamation mark

Why this is important for Financial Services

Financial services are often difficult to understand:

  • Core concepts like “credit”, ”debt” and “interest” are intangible.
  • Products are complicated, e.g. fixed-rate bonds and tax-free ISAs.
  • The calculations behind products are also complicated, e.g. credit card statement calculations.
  • They use jargon like “balance transfers” and acronyms like “APR” “AER” and “EAR”.
  • They need you to predict future scenarios, e.g. asking customers to predict whether they need a 2, 3 or 5-year fixed-rate mortgage.

Complexities like these make it hard for consumers to make informed decisions. If you struggle with comprehension you’re at even more of a disadvantage. The risk is that you make poor decisions that get you into financial difficulties.

The FCA has recognised this. In February 2021 it published guidance for firms on the fair treatment of vulnerable customers, setting expectations that will be strengthened by 2022's Consumer Duty.

It says that “Failure to communicate with vulnerable consumers in ways they can understand may result in an increased risk of harm.” 

It recognises that many factors can affect a lack of understanding. This includes factors like low literacy and cognitive disabilities, discussed here.

The FCA guidance states that firms should “Ensure all communications and information about products and services are presented in ways that are understandable for these consumers.”

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Making sense of the Consumer Duty

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If we want to treat customers fairly, we need to think differently about how we communicate with them.

Illustration of a page of text with arrows pointing from it to an image and a video

The alternatives to text

The alternatives to text are fairly obvious: images and video.

Images and videos often feature on websites’ marketing pages. But they’re used much less, if at all, when users get to pages dealing with more complicated information. Instead, text dominates on product detail pages, charges information, help pages, and terms and conditions.

We need to stop viewing images as decorative elements, or videos as superfluous. We need to recognise the power they have to improve understanding.

Illustration of an image (a photograph of some mountains)

The power of images

Let’s examine what makes images such an effective communication tool.

Images communicate quickly

Images communicate meaning to a viewer in an instant. As a viewer, you may not be aware of the different ways they do this.

The simplest way images form meaning is when they resemble the thing they represent. A photograph of a person works in this way. In the field of semiotics, this is called an “icon” (which is different to “icons” in UI design). In this example from Airbnb, online experiences are represented by an image that resembles one. At a glance, you understand how the service works.

A screenshot from Airbnb that shows a photograph of an online class on an iPad. It’s labelled ‘Online Experiences
Promotion for Airbnb online experiences – an example of an icon

Images may also denote a concept through a connection, rather than resembling it directly. Smoke represents fire in this way. This is called an “index”. In this example from Headspace, they use a smile as an index of happiness.

A screenshot of the Headspace app showing an illustration of a smiling character
Headspace illustration – an example of an index

Or, there may be no logical connection to what the image represents, for example, a no-entry sign. This is called a “symbol”. On this page on Bulb’s site, the links between the warning and chat symbols and the concepts they represent are arbitrary. Meaning is instead created through a convention.

A screenshot from Bulb’s website. It shows an exclamation mark in a triangle next to a paragraph titled "Emergency" and a speech bubble next to a paragraph titled "Community"
Bulb website – an example of symbols

Images can work as metaphors, transferring their meaning to something else. In this example from Google, an image of a padlock transfers the concept of security to the way they handle customer data.

A screenshot from a Google site. An illustration of a padlock appears over a phone. A paragraph next to it is titled "Advanced encryption keeps your data safe in transit"
Google – an example of a metaphor

Images can also work as a synecdoche, where a part is used to represent a whole, for example, Big Ben can represent London. In the feature promotion below, Slack uses part of an enterprise, the building, to represent the whole.

A screenshot from a Slack marketing page. It shows an illustration of two small buildings with speech bubbles above them, as if talking to eachother. A paragraph next to is titled "Speed up work with external partners, using Slack Connect"
Slack feature promotion – an example of a synecdoche

Images reveal data

Data graphics, as Edward Tufte writes, “reveal data”. One of the examples Tufte provides is Dr John Snow’s dot map. Snow plotted the location of deaths from Cholera in central London for September 1854. The map revealed that cholera was affecting those who lived near and drank from the Broad Street pump. The pump was removed and the neighbourhood epidemic ended.

John Snow’s dot map showing the location of deaths around the Broad Street pump
John Snow’s dot map

These maps, showing three peaks of Coronavirus infections in the US, also reveal data. We can see how different geographies are affected across the three peaks and the difference in the scale of infections.

Three maps of the US. Red triangles show the location of Coronavirus infections, with their height showing the scale
New York Times data visualisation of three peaks of Coronavirus

Images support learning

Images and text used in combination can be even more powerful, by making learning more effective. This is supported by a cognitive theory called “dual coding”.

According to this theory, two information channels feed our working memory: the visual, known as the “visuospatial sketchpad”, and the verbal, known as the “auditory loop”.

Illustration showing a sketchpad and a tape recorder inside a person’s head
Dual coding theory

Receiving information in two different ways unlocks more working memory because you have access to both visual and verbal memory capacity.

Studies of dual coding have also shown that information is retrieved more easily when it has been offered in two different ways. The theory being that the information is encoded twice into your long-term memory.

Robinhood, a US-based trading app, combines text and images to help people learn investment basics. In the screenshot below, they explain how stocks work by visualising a basic example.

A screenshot from Robinhood. It show shows an illustration labelled "Stocks example". On the left, it shows a large number of cubes with the label "Total number of shares in Acme Co". On the right it shows 3 cubes with the label "Shares of Acme Co. you own"
Robinhood illustration to explain stocks

Illustration of a video player

The power of video

Like images, there are several reasons why videos are so effective.  

Videos communicate in multiple ways

Videos can communicate in more ways than images alone, allowing them to convey more information.

Videos have movement and they can communicate action. As the director and educator Alexander Mackendrick says “film can also tell stories purely in movement, in action and reaction.”

This example from Snoop, a money management app, shows how movement can communicate something as complicated as Open Banking. This video was the most successful during a recent benchmarking exercise at cxpartners where we tested different ways to explain Open Banking.

An explanation of Open Banking in the Snoop app (Source)

In this example from the BBC, a graph about Coronavirus cases is animated over time. The motion here helps to tell an alarming story.

Animated graph of Coronavirus cases from BBC news (Source)

Video also provides an audio channel. We can make use of speech to provide extra meaning through pace, tone, emphasis and intonation.

Videos engage

The richness of videos also makes them engaging. This is important if you are trying to get someone to understand a potentially dry subject matter.

“Explainer videos” have become popular in marketing because of their ability to engage potential customers. A Forbes article claims that marketers using video see 49% faster growth in revenue (on average).

This video for Coin, a (closed) US fintech, is a great example of an explainer. It’s made by the agency Sandwich, and like most of their videos, it’s clear, concise and witty.

Explainer video for Coin, by Sandwich (Source)

These explainer videos are typically used for product marketing, but they could help with education and support content too.

Videos support learning

Dual-coding theory also applies to video. They provide visual and verbal information simultaneously, strengthening the encoding process and helping people learn.

A related educational strategy that applies to video is multisensory learning. This also proposes that people learn better if they’re taught using more than one modality: visual, auditory, kinaesthetic or tactile.

The 2009 Jim Rose report on how to teach people with dyslexia and learning difficulties recommends multisensory teaching. In the UK, the Department for Education requires that children are taught phonics using this approach. It’s also recognised by the British Dyslexia Association.

YouTuber Dominic Walliman uses video to help people learn about science. His multisensory approach makes complex scientific theories surprisingly understandable. In this example, he teaches us the basics of quantum physics in just 12m45s.

An explanation of quantum physics by Dominic Walliman (Source)

Videos can provide the big picture

People with dyslexia tend to be “wholist” learners that focus on the big picture, rather than “analytic” learners that focus on detail. Wholist learners prefer an overview of a topic first and tend to get frustrated with fine detail.

Summaries also help people who have difficulty with “comprehension monitoring” (the ability to check your understanding of text).

This is where videos could play a role. They could be used to summarise a topic before it is detailed in a longer passage of text. BBC news occasionally provides a video summary at the top of an article, before the text below goes into more detail.

A screenshot from the BBC news site. It shows a video at the top of the page, followed by a passage of text
A video summary is used at the top of a BBC news article

Illustration of a bank next to an image (a photograph of some mountains) and a video player

Using other formats for financial services

The examples from Robinhood, Snoop, and Coin begin to illustrate how other content formats can be used in financial services. And there are other signs that the industry is recognising the value of other formats.

In the FCA’s recent webinar on Consumer Vulnerability, they recommend offering multiple channels of communication so that vulnerable customers have a choice. They specifically highlight the use of video in a good practice example: 

“A number of firms provide new customers, in particular, with short videos. This video may talk about the advice process that the customer will be taken through. It may be a triage video that talks about the generic risks and benefits of staying in a defined benefits scheme. It may even be a video explaining different terms that will be used during interactions with advisers.”

One of the big five banks, Lloyds, is also using video on their website’s help and support section. Videos cover educational content, like how balance transfers work, and supportive content, such as staying on top of mortgage payments. This last example is a reaction to people finding themselves in vulnerable circumstances because of COVID-19.

An explanation of how balance transfer cards work, by Lloyds Bank (Source)

These videos aren’t perfect. The balance transfer example relies too much on text and symbols without widely understood conventions. But it shows recognition in the industry that a page of text isn’t always the best way to explain financial concepts.

Illustration of an image (a photograph of some mountains) and a video player, bothe with ticks next to them

Accessible media

Although images and video can help make content more understandable, they could potentially exclude people too.

Images won’t be seen by blind users, and they can cause problems for people, with visual impairments, who use screen magnifiers. They can also distract autistic users.

The same issues also apply to video. In addition, people with hearing impairments will have difficulty with audio, and people who have auditory or visual processing disorders may feel overwhelmed.

When we do use images and videos, we need to make them as accessible as possible.

We should describe images, usually using alt text (unless there is no extra information communicated by the picture).

We should caption videos for those with hearing impairments. We can also provide video descriptions (also called audio descriptions) for those with visual impairments. You can hear video descriptions in action by enabling them on iPlayer.

A screenshot from iPlayer, zoomed in on a control to turn on Audio Description
Audio descriptions on iPlayer

For more information about making media accessible, see the W3C’s guidance. And see the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines for both image and other media.

Illustration of three different people

An inclusive approach benefits everyone

This isn't a niche set of users that can be overlooked. There are 6.3 million people in the UK with dyslexia. In the 2011 census, 4.2 million people reported that English was not their main language. Not everyone in these groups will have comprehension difficulties, but it gives you a crude idea of scale.

But that doesn’t mean you should only consider other formats for people with comprehension difficulties.

Text written in plain English helps people with a low reading age, but this approach also benefits everyone, including “highly educated experts”.

Images and video can be equally inclusive. These content formats can improve comprehension for everyone.

Conclusion

Text is fundamentally important, especially when it’s written in plain English and well structured. But people with comprehension difficulties can struggle with text.

We need to recognise that images and video have a remarkable power to provide meaning, explain and help people learn. They are not decorative elements.

Images communicate quickly, they reveal data and they support learning.

Videos communicate in multiple ways, they’re engaging, and they support learning too. They can also provide a “big picture” view.

In financial services, we have the opportunity to help not just people with comprehension difficulties, but everyone.

By helping people to understand the complex world of financial services, we can help people make better financial decisions, get support when they need it and reach better outcomes.

Thanks to Libby Charlton for her invaluable guidance on dyslexia and other neurodiverse conditions

Designer in the Christmas spirit since December 1st