Why More Visuals and Less Text Are Key for Health Education

Tara Troutman, Healthwise Content Strategist

“A picture is worth a thousand words.”
“Seeing is believing.”
“Show, don’t tell.”

Sayings like these are used so often, and survive so long, because they're true. Visuals help us remember important information and understand complex subjects. With 65 percent of Americans being visual learners and 21 percent having low literacy levels, a visual approach to health education content makes good sense.


When it comes to health education, visuals can play an important role in increasing people’s understanding, specifically around symptom identification, risk factors, and how-to content. Visuals can help people understand and remember information that could be lifesaving. And they can help people get the care they need or learn how to care for themselves.

While everyone can benefit from more visual content, there are tremendous benefits for people who:

  • Have low literacy levels.
  • Are English language learners (ELL).
  • Are in crisis or in crisis situations.
  • Experience high stress levels or are in high-stress situations.
  • Have learning or developmental disabilities.

It’s about more than simply adding pictures

One area of health education where a visual emphasis is particularly important is patient instructions—specifically to support ELL and people who don’t speak English. Patient instructions can feel like an essential blueprint for patients who need to understand how to best take care of themselves and/or their condition. But visual health education doesn’t mean simply adding pictures to content and instantly achieving good outcomes. Instead, it’s important to develop visual content intentionally by asking questions like:

  • What visual layouts work for our content systems, deliveries, and client systems?
  • Do users prefer certain layouts over others? Why?
  • How can we ensure that the visual content helps people who have low literacy or who are ELL?
  • Which topics or articles lend themselves to a more visual layout?
  • How do we ensure the text and visuals support one another so they don’t confuse?
  • What key concepts increase understanding, comprehension, and action?

The best way to answer these questions is by going straight to users. User feedback, user testing, and usage data analysis are key to creating effective visual health education. Here are three findings from Healthwise user testing that guide our visual health education development:

1. Know the purpose of the content and choose the style that supports that purpose

When comparing the two different visual styles below* (n = 20), people preferred the sketch of the person. But when asked which design helped them remember symptoms, especially during stressful or tense situations, most people chose the Quick List with icons (below, right).


2. Don’t overwhelm with unnecessary text

In user testing, we heard loud and clear that people prefer less text, with a few important exceptions (n = 80 from all tests combined). For topics that are hard to understand, aren’t well-known, or have long, complicated names (e.g., preeclampsia), people want to know what it is and why they should care. Even then, they want that content to get right to the point.

A lot of reading is overwhelming. I just want simple instructions and diagrams. Explain it simple and fast.”

“I have no idea what preeclampsia is.”

"When instructions have heavy text, a lot of people get lost, a lot of people get overwhelmed.”

3. Perceived length impacts preference

Whether online or in print, consumers (and clients) want information to be short and scannable. When comparing the visual styles below* (n = 20), even though it's the exact same information, people preferred the visual style that appeared shorter (below, left).


These three findings tell us that visuals need to be intentionally used in health education. If done correctly, text and images will work together and support each other, make the content easy to understand, and help people better understand task-based instructions. Expanding how we use visual content goes a long way toward ensuring that a wide array of patients can use, understand, and benefit from important health education.

Healthwise Advise, our new FHIR-enabled health education solution for Epic users, provides expanded visual health education and many more perks. For more information, check out a demo or contact us today.

* These images are prototypes used for testing and are not the final product.