I'm having difficulty explaining the differences between text and images of text (or text in images in general). I've stated that:

  • When text is text, parts of the text can normally be selected and copied but images can only be selected and copied as a whole.
  • Text is searchable whereas text in images are not
  • Text in images is like a word appearing as part of a painting

Obviously my explanation was not very helpful as I showed them a few samples afterwards and they couldn't correctly identify which were text and which were images. Some of the samples were really obvious as the text was interpolated with images but from their conceptual model, it appears that the bigger the font size, the more likely that it is an image.

I've told them that while browsing the Internet, try right clicking on things and if the menu shows things like "Save picture as" or "Save image as" then it is an image. But then there's the cases (e.g. the Super User logo at the top left of this page) that are background images in CSS which don't show those options and they become confused as to whether that logo is an image with text or an image beside text.

Can someone provide me with an explanation that is suitable for computer illiterate users?

  • Image with text is a single object, while a text string is made of multiple single objects.
    – Logman
    Jul 20, 2014 at 3:10
  • well you could make the comparison of a newspaper vs a picture of a newspaper
    – CobaltHex
    Jul 20, 2014 at 3:54
  • Everything we look at is an "image". It´s how it is stored that you are trying to distinguish between.
    – BrianA
    Jul 20, 2014 at 6:12
  • Visually, it's very likely you can't tell the difference. It's more about the usage.
    – Dave
    Jul 20, 2014 at 9:10
  • Can you provide some context for us? Who do you have to explain this to? And why? For a lot of users in a lot of situations, the difference is moot at a personal level. But there's plenty of bigger picture arguments to be made but it'd help to understand the goal of said arguments.
    – DA01
    Jul 21, 2014 at 19:05

3 Answers 3


I would probably try using an analogy like alphabetic fridge magnets vs. a photograph of said fridge magnets to define a real world situation which mimics the difference. They could look at a fridge with a word spelled on it and a photo of that fridge and the concept of being able to interact with the text on one and not the other may become clearer. If you are trying to pick the text on the screen up and you can't then that means its an image.

The problem you have is that from a computer illiterate users perspective there is no difference between the two, they are both identical sets of glowing pixels conveying information, it's just to us that know how to build computer software that there is a difference.

Once they understand the difference in a real world that they can understand the tests you describe will make more sense and they should then be better at identifying the images from the text.

Often finding a real world metaphor that is completely removed from the computer implementation can help a computer illiterate user understand a concept better. If you can take that metaphor into a realm which they have strong understanding of (such as into an area they are expert / experienced in then all the better).

I've had some success with this, for example, describing consistency problems with web interfaces by suggesting the user thought about the mayhem switching brake and accelerator pedals or the colours for diesel and unleaded pumps would cause. As soon as the problem is re-framed in the world they know it makes a lot more sense.


If you are trying to find a way for them to easily distinguish words-as-images from real text (separate from convincing them why this is important), I would emphasize that for real text you can select individual letters. It is easy enough to just drag your mouse across a section of the page and see the selection block; for images the selection is all-or-nothing.

Of course, another easy way to identify words-as-images is to set the browser not to display images.


I use the tin can analogy. Assume that they were out at a store, but all of the produce was in plain white boxes, or cans without labels. They wouldn't know what was inside of said packaging, nor would they want to buy, let alone try the products. It's the same issue; if someone can't see what your labels say, they're not going to buy or use the product, but going back to the example, if the store had written on the bare cans and boxes what was inside, they would still be able to know what was inside, and be more inclined to purchase.

  • i don't think this really answers the question ... the OP is looking for ways to explain a technical issue to users who in both cases can clearly see and read the text, so talking about items that are blank isn't really within the question scope
    – Toni Leigh
    Jul 20, 2014 at 22:13
  • 1
    I'm sorry but I don't understand this analogy at all :/ Jul 20, 2014 at 22:55

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