What is the optimal design for a scientific poster? Insights from the founder of the #betterposter movement
As Mike Morrison, a PhD candidate in organisational psychology at the University of Michigan, noted at the recent International Society for Medical Publication Professionals (ISMPP) Annual Meeting, the majority of scientific posters follow the same design, which has changed very little over the years. With his #betterposter campaign, Mike is pushing for a move away from traditional, text-heavy posters to a more user-friendly design. The Publication Plan talked to Mike to find out more.
Could you tell us how you became interested in scientific poster design and how your background as a User Experience Designer influenced the design of the #betterposter?
“Sure! The first lesson you learn being a User Experience (UX) Designer is that we are lazy-efficient in how we process information. People say they read everything carefully, evaluate every website logically, and of course need every last fine detail. But when you watch people use interfaces, everybody skims and filters frantically, looking for the bits they need and ignoring the rest, and they’ll give up the instant they feel overloaded. After ten years of watching and testing designs against visitor behaviours on the web, I started my PhD program in psychology with maybe fewer illusions about people’s information processing limits.
But of course, like every other terrified first year grad student, I started by completely ignoring all that and blindly conforming to what I saw everybody else doing. My first posters looked much like a traditional wall of text. Like most of us, I just assumed there was a good reason for the old poster approach. Then I would have posters get totally ignored, or when people did stop, they would start conversations that implied that they hadn’t even read the full title of the poster. After too many of those, I was just like “Wait, what am I doing?! What are we all doing?!”
When a design is extremely broken, you’re trained in UX design to wipe it clean and start over, adding one element back at a time, only when it becomes obvious that an element is indeed necessary. Usually, you end up with a more efficient design.
When a design is extremely broken, you’re trained in UX design to wipe it clean and start over, adding one element back at a time, only when it becomes obvious that an element is indeed necessary. Usually, you end up with a more efficient design, with a pile of unnecessary fluff that never needed to be added back. That’s what #betterposter version 1.0 was for me: a hard reset for posters. I’ve since reintroduced components to the approach over the last year as they’ve proven necessary (like big key figures), but only when I was confident that it would add more value than clutter.”
#betterposter version 1.5
Your YouTube video on how to create better research posters has gained over 500,000 views. With so much interest, do you think the scientific community has embraced the #betterposter design or is there some reluctance to move away from a poster design that has been the norm for over 30 years?
“Both! I was actually shocked at how positive the initial response was. The #betterposter template file now has over 250,000 downloads, so clearly a ton of people are using it, which I am really overjoyed about. I thought I’d be bugging conferences for years to try it! But we still have a long way to go.
Overall, tons of people have embraced it, and some have been reluctant. I get the impression that there is also a large ‘silent majority’ who really like it but are afraid of what their advisors will think if they break with tradition.
Incidentally, the new #betterposter version 2.0 layouts are faring better than version 1.0 on this front. They include more data and figures (the key concern with version 1.0), and also show the principles so presenters can make their own layouts.”
Example of a #betterposter version 2.0 layout
Are you aware of any concerns around the use of the #betterposter design? How would you respond to these?
“I’m extremely, painfully aware of the concerns. Some are really legitimate and helpful (eg presenters have highlighted the need to visualise methods, and raised concerns that the figures were too small on version 1), and those have led directly to the improvements in the #betterposter version 2.0 video and layouts. I intend to release improvements every year, and I need to listen to concerns and suggestions to do that!
BUT, there are also some people whose concerns have been…less thoughtful. The traditional ‘wall of text’ poster does one thing well: it gives an overall impression of density, and difficulty, and effort. You look at all of those paragraphs and figures, and you think “Wow that’s a lot of effort and detail!” You don’t learn anything, but you just blindly trust that anybody who puts that much text and that many figures on a poster must have thought their study through. These new designs actually communicate well, but they also feel easier (by design!), which offends some people.
That bias, called the affective heuristic in cognitive psychology, has been my greatest foe in all of this. I made posters that are easier to understand, which ironically makes them feel less ‘sciencey’. It may take us some time to get comfortable with science feeling easier than it normally does.
If you still have concerns, please watch the #betterposter PART 2 cartoon. You may find that most of your concerns have been addressed in the new evidence, new data-centric layouts, and reliable design principles shown in the sequel cartoon. The PART 2 cartoon incorporates a year’s worth of feedback (both positive and negative). Don’t just glance at a thumbnail of the ‘base model’ version 1.0 that went viral and write off the whole endeavour.
Also, keep in mind that we have not been basing the traditional approach to posters on any evidence. Research on traditional posters finds them largely ineffective at transmitting knowledge, and surveys show ‘meh’ attitudes towards poster sessions. The #betterposter family of layouts (which now comprises four recommended layouts) are at least attempts at creating poster layouts based on extremely sound learning and design evidence, which I spelled out in the PART 2 video. We’re still working to test the specific layouts themselves, but it’s no longer #betterposter version 1.0 or traditional. Now it’s “Will you try applying evidence-based principles, or not?”
Finally, the most common concern I hear with #betterposter-style layouts is that they reduce detail and ‘lose rigour’. If that is your concern, consider that in most physical poster sessions, the presenter explains everything and most content on the poster doesn’t actually get read. Putting something on your poster is not the same as people actually reading it.
Putting something on your poster is not the same as people actually reading it…. Your poster can never be as detailed as a paper, and trying to force it to be as detailed will typically ruin it.
I’d argue that explaining your methods briefly enough that people can scan them quickly is better than adding so much detail that people gloss over it all and get nothing. You can always explain more in person, and link to papers for more detail! Your poster can never be as detailed as a paper, and trying to force it to be as detailed will typically ruin it.”
You have conducted research to assess whether the #betterposter design is more effective than a traditional poster – could you share some of your findings with us?
“Sure! We’re working to publish our initial results now in collaboration with multiple labs in different disciplines. To give you an idea of some preliminary findings:
- initial eye tracking results favour the #betterposter version 1.0 over the traditional layout
- initial preference data show that the #betterposter version 1.0 was preferred by presenters and attendees at three different conferences (a fourth conference had non-significant findings)
- #betterposters (version 1.0) got more visitors than traditional posters at two conferences where we attempted to measure this metric – however, this result was only significant in one pilot after removing an outlier.
We still want to collect more data, especially on browsing behaviours and learning outcomes, and hopefully we’ll be able to resume that after the pandemic. But given that all of these findings were based on the version 1.0 design, and many results were upheld across multiple conferences and multiple experimenters, I think there’s enough evidence to say that we’ve at least achieved a very promising start to what will hopefully become a trend of posters improving every year (instead of stagnating like they have for decades).
Version 1.0 was an imperfect step in the right direction. The version 2.0 layouts take another step forward past that…
#betterposter version 1.0 wasn’t perfect, but we’re seeing it move the needle on some really valuable outcomes like attendee engagement. One attendee commented to me while looking at a #betterposter version 1.0, not knowing that I was the creator, “You know, I think this is a step in the right direction.” That’s kind of been my impression of the data so far: version 1.0 was an imperfect step in the right direction. The version 2.0 layouts take another step forward past that, and I’m looking forward to including them in our experiments post-COVID.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in many scientific congresses adopting a virtual format this year, with some increasing the use of digital elements on posters. Your #betterposter design includes a QR code. What do you think is the best way to utilise a QR code on a poster?
“If your poster is virtual, you don’t need a QR– you can use a real link! The only purpose of a QR is to quickly link the physical world to the digital. QRs can be useful on physical posters, but on virtual posters they’re a higher interaction cost for the user than simply clicking a link.
Virtual posters are an entirely different user context and need a completely different design. Something like the ‘swipe-flipbook’ #TwitterPoster concept I launched earlier this year or this ‘animated scrolling’ concept from Dr Krista Byers-Heinlein is probably a better fit for the online context, but I’m still working on this problem. I will also hopefully have a new cartoon with new concepts coming out next month dedicated specifically to virtual posters.”
Do you think QR codes and other digital features are currently being used to maximum effect? Are there any plans to evolve the #betterposter design to encourage increased use of digital elements?
“We’re just at the beginning! There are lots more things we can do to marry physical and digital content. The next physical version 3.0 #betterposter concepts (expected in 2021–2022) will likely be paired with companion formats that are online-native. I’ve also experimented with augmented reality (AR) elements on posters (eg point your phone at a poster and see a 3D model of the organ being studied), which may become increasingly useful as AR technology becomes more popular.”
Some congresses have shared your #betterposter design as a template for presenters to use. Do you think congresses need to do more to improve the experience of poster sessions for presenters and attendees? If so, what steps could they take?
“After speaking to conference administrators from around science over the last year, I’ve come to the conclusion that they are all superhuman saints doing the absolute best they can. The unfortunate answer here is that most people in science have scientific backgrounds (naturally), and few have design skills. Conferences are enthusiastic about trying new approaches to improve poster sessions, but it’s understandably hard for them to know what to do. The best general change all conferences can make is to help attendees feel less pressure to conform. Like, actively encourage crazy experimentation with posters.
More than using any one poster design, it is crucial that scientists experiment wildly with posters. Like, try the most radical design you can think of instead of conforming to ‘every poster ever’ out of fear. And presenters need some reassurance that their conference supports and rewards creativity and risk-taking in posters. The more we encourage poster presenters to take creative risks, the more attendees will feel engaged in a lot of novel, surprising posters.”
Presenters need some reassurance that their conference supports and rewards creativity and risk-taking in posters. The more we encourage poster presenters to take creative risks, the more attendees will feel engaged in a lot of novel, surprising posters.
Finally, what’s next for the #betterposter design and are there any other areas of academic research that you feel would benefit from reform?
“This year, I released the #TwitterPoster and #betterposter PART 2 cartoons, featuring all-new #betterposter layouts, which are generally more polished and evolved than the original ‘viral’ version 1.0 layout (which is, in my humble opinion, still a decent foundation design). One of my goals with the #betterposter PART 2 video is to arm scientists with the principles so they can keep the poster revolution going, even if I get hit by a car tomorrow.
Next month, I’ll hopefully release my #virtualposter cartoon. After that, my plan is to expand to other areas of science that desperately need modernisation. Science is an ‘immature’ organisation when it comes to UX, in that science still thinks design means ‘making things look pretty’ and doesn’t realise how dramatically some good UX design can boost productivity (and happiness among scientists). Through my day job at a science-related start-up, we might have the chance to take a swing at improving scientific publishing, which is both the hardest design problem in science, and potentially the most impactful if solved. That one’s a long shot, but I’m having a lot of fun working on it.”
Mike Morrison is a PhD candidate in organisational psychology at Michigan State University. You can contact Mike via email@example.com.
With thanks to our sponsor, Aspire Scientific Ltd.
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