James Holzhauer’s run on Jeopardy! has captured the attention of avid fans and those only mildly familiar with the show—me included. I’m intrigued by how his success might apply to crafting memorable content experiences.
Holzhauer plays in a highly unusual way that has him poised to set records for wins and money earned. As of early May, he had amassed winnings of $1,691,008 across 22 games.
His strategy includes tactics such as playing from the bottom of the board up to amass more money early, allowing him to bet far more on Daily Doubles, which he finds faster because of this style of play.
It’s not necessarily his aggressive gameplay that caught my attention, but rather the manner in which he’s gained the vast knowledge that’s critical to having the right answers. Holzhauer, when asked how he had prepared for the show, said he did most of his prep in the children’s book section at bookstores. Yes, the man taking Jeopardy! success to untold heights studied children’s books.
Children’s books “are chock-full of infographics, pictures and all kinds of stuff to keep the reader engaged,” he told The Washington Post. “I couldn’t make it through a chapter of an actual Dickens novel without falling asleep.”
It’s fascinating that something so unexpected and simple can have such a profound effect on Holzhauer’s ability to capture and retain knowledge. With this in mind, what can we learn from the design of children’s books, and how can we apply it to designing digital content experiences?
Finding Content Design Inspiration in Children’s Book
Great digital content benefits from visual elements that help readers scan and retain information. We’re bombarded with too many choices and sources of information these days, much of it fleeting, and always competing for our attention.
Many of the usual recommendations for concise, effective web content are similar to those used in the design of children’s books, several of which have helped Holzhauer quickly acquire the knowledge needed to excel at a game as difficult to win consistently as Jeopardy!
Holzhauer’s approach jibes with the thinking of user experience guru Steve Krug. “One of the very few well-documented facts about web use is that people tend to spend very little time reading most web pages. Instead, we scan (or skim) them, looking for words or phrases that catch our eye,” notes Krug in his book Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited.
Going further, Krug points out that people are usually in a hurry. We know we don’t need to read everything, and by now we’ve trained ourselves to skim smartly. These are good things for editorial and design teams to keep in mind as they create content that is consistently effective and draws people deeper into more of what’s offered on a website.
Examples of Smart User Experiences in Children’s Books
Let’s look at some of the design aspects of children’s books that Holzhauer credits as beneficial to his success and how we can apply them to digital content design:
Pictures and Images
If you’ve ever picked up any children’s books, specifically those with an educational focus, there’s no confusion about the intended reader. Take, for example, a biography about Neil Armstrong. It’s likely that most biographies written about him, or the first moon landing, are long, heavy on text and spread out key facts across dozens or even hundreds of pages.
But for a children’s version on the same topic, the design approach is vastly different. In the page below from the Ordinary People Change the World book series, a collection of images quickly highlights Armstrong’s life. There’s also a timeline that captures key events in his life and in space travel.
A single two-page spread displays some of the most important aspects of his life, requiring little reading and allowing for easy retention. Applied to, say, a blog post, it’s possible to see the benefit of reducing the number of paragraphs and replacing them with more imagery, short descriptions, lists and timelines. All of these aid in scan-ability.
Research bears this out. Visuals greatly aid the ability to capture and retain information, reported a team from the University of Toronto: “People can remember more than 2,000 pictures with at least 90 percent accuracy in recognition tests over a period of several days, even with short presentation times during learning. This excellent memory for pictures consistently exceeds our ability to remember words.”
Infographics organize complex data and information into memorable chunks that stand out against text-heavy content. If you want people to remember—and potentially act on—the most critical data you’re presenting, an infographic will undoubtedly boost retention.
Take a look at the infographic below, from Animal Kingdom by data journalist Simon Rogers and illustrator Nicholas Blechman. The spread details both the food chain and how whales eat. Both pages are instantly effective in giving the reader precise bits of information—no more, no less than needed.
The little fever bar on the right-hand page resonates far more easily than would a sentence such as, “Whales eat in the first four months of the year, and they don’t eat during the remaining eight months of the year.”
Infographics also offer social media benefits: They’re linkable and sharable as individual graphics that can be used elsewhere. For example, a social post promoting blog content might include a chunk of data as the featured image rather than a photograph. In a Facebook feed, an infographic can capture attention and communicate a key fact to pull scrolling readers in.
The concise language typical in children’s books also benefits retainability.
Take the image from Simon’s book explaining what a whale eats. Key facts are presented in a sentence or two, separated from other text, making it easy to scan and retain: “A blue whale may consume up to 6.3–7.3 metric tons/6.9–8 tons of food per day during the summer feeding season.”
Often, a spread in a children’s book contains only a couple of sentences. By limiting text and focusing only on the most critical takeaways, books for young readers bring to life the adage “less is more.”
How We Put This UX Thinking to Work at Manifest
Obviously, using an effective mix of content strategy, alongside editorial and visual design, is fundamental to the work we produce at Manifest.
It takes planning and collaboration to deliver content that relies on the right visual imagery to tell a story with less text.
On our experience design team, we help craft content experiences that make the most of visual elements and rich media, such as video, audio and interactive tools. The aim? Creating content that will resonate with target audiences.
We do this to make stories and information more memorable, actionable and longer-lasting than text alone might. In a digital day and age when people are bombarded with news and content from every direction, a mix of simplicity and irresistibility is necessary to help people retain what they see—and to draw them further into a brand’s overall experience.
The inspiration drawn from Holzhauer’s study methods is a timely, motivating reminder that even as digital content continues to dominate our lives, transformative tactics can help brands cut through the noise and deliver meaningful, memorable experiences for their target audiences.