Living in My America

The morning after the 2016 presidential election, my children were distraught. My two girls the most—they had been so excited to see a woman elected to the most powerful position in the world. They both knew, to differing degrees depending on their ages, that the personal behavior and ethics of the man who beat her did not align with our own. My 17yo in particular understood everything that he had said, everything he’d been accused of. That morning, the scales fell from her eyes.

As I talked to my daughter that morning, I said to her that despite our understanding of the man elected, we could not equate his lack of ethics and morals with his voters’ values. Certainly there are people with truly disturbing beliefs who promoted his election. It is usually a sign that something has gone very wrong if you are on the same team with neo-Nazis and other white supremacists. There’s definitely something very wrong if you are on the same team and you don’t feel compelled to point out at every juncture that you disavow their racism and hatred.

But the vast majority of people who voted for him are good people, just as my daughter and I like to think of ourselves. I know this to be true because I know many of them myself. And in many cases, these friends and I simply happen to disagree on matters of public policy. They knew that Hillary Clinton would promote policies they disagreed with, so they voted for the other candidate. That’s how it often works in America, no matter what you happen to believe—we don’t always get our first-choice candidate, or even perhaps our fourth or fifth choice. We hold our nose and go with the person who seems closest, however fuzzy the comparison.

No, I told my daughter. What we learned is that other people had different deal-breakers than we did. Many liberals and progressives learned in the late 1990s that it was hard to reconcile the political positions of Bill Clinton with his personal moral choices and mistakes. For many conservatives, his personal failings simply confirmed what they already believed about him—and that reinforced their belief that a person’s character was an essential litmus test for their suitability to a life of public service. It’s not that Democrats didn’t care about Bill Clinton’s character—far from it. He’s just who we were stuck with by that point. Some of my conservative friends have had to make the same accommodation 20 years later. I do not gloat—it is a hard thing to reconcile.

In that time frame, it was helpful to me to remember that some of our most beloved and revered presidents also struggled in their marriages. As a young adult then, I’d never really considered infidelity before, but as I pondered it, I came to an understanding that someone else’s marriage was none of my business in the particulars, and the only thing I really had to think about was whether a president’s personal actions endangered the country. You could certainly argue that any president doing something personally embarrassing could be a target for blackmail or a risk to national security, but it seemed highly unlikely to me that that was a real risk with what we learned about Bill Clinton.

When George Bush was elected, I was disappointed and frustrated with the way the election had ended, but I did not doubt his character. I disagreed with more of his policies than I agreed with, but I believed that he loved this country as I do and that he was honored to serve. He did many things I was proud of while he served, and has done many more since then. With the perspective of a little more time, I believe that the partisan rancor ushered in starting in 1994 but greatly intensified at the end of Clinton’s term created a political atmosphere where the collective we were bound to make mistakes by the time Bush 43 was elected. We no longer simply disagree. We no longer trust each other’s motives and perceptions. I hope I am around long enough to see our perspective on the Iraq War and the subsequent destabilization in other parts of the Middle East in 2053. I will be curious to see how history judges American actions in the early 21st century with the perspective of a little more time.

When Obama was elected, most Americans desperately needed the hope he promised. We were frustrated by two wars that hadn’t all gone the way we’d wanted, if we wanted them at all. Our economy was a huge mess. It just seemed like so many things had gone off the rails. Let me be clear to say—for the most part, I think presidents get too much credit and too much blame for the economy. Presidents and lawmakers rarely “create jobs,” no matter how much they like to say so. FDR can claim that, but most others, not so much. I give the Federal Reserve a lot more credit for that, but most of all, I credit the American entrepreneurial spirit.

And as we’ve seen the past 8 years, and in stark relief during the 2016 election, about half the country believed that Obama represented a new kind of president. The other half, of course, was horrified by him.

Here’s what I’ve learned the past 8 years:
* Most of the people who opposed President Obama aren’t racist.
* There are more than a few who are, though. And some of the people who are racist do not recognize this prejudice in themselves. It’s been my experience that some people who are racist are those who feel compelled to shout the loudest that they would never judge anyone on race, or sex, or religion. God bless, but they cannot see the log in their own eye, or perhaps even just know not to admit it.
* Many people in this country are deeply uncomfortable with a world that is rapidly changing around them.
* More than any other time in my life, the worldview that conservative Christian religion describes is separated from the world we see daily by a deep chasm.

Our country is rapidly diversifying, and that is scary to many people. I don’t think it needs to be. My America isn’t described by my Christian faith. It isn’t described by my white skin. I celebrate America’s growing diversity not just in the abstract but in fact and in the specific.

Many people have said that my generation does not appreciate the work that women before us did, and I think that has often been the case. Many women my age [solid Gen X] were raised to believe we could be anything. Many women my age have seized opportunities that came easier to us than our mother’s generation. And many women my age have liked to say that sexism no longer exists, or is isolated.

For a while, a similar vein was heard regarding racism in this country, though in my experience, most people who have talked about this society being post-racial have not been people of color. I think many women in my generation and younger really have lived most of their lives without directly experiencing sexism, but I also believe many of us have been trained not to know it when we see it. I think fewer of my friends of color could say the same—I myself have seen far more overt racism than sexism in my life, and none of that racism has been directed at me.

My friends in the LGBTQIA communities are living a different experience as well. So much of the fight for their freedoms has come to fruition in my adulthood, much of it in the past few years. Their fight is fresh, new, and raw. It feels fragile to me.

As the American experiment enters its 241st year, here are the things that describe my America:
* I believe in the 1st Amendment. Freedom of speech. Freedom of the press. Freedom of religion. These form the bedrock of my understanding of what we’re doing here.
* That freedom of religion is why I so strongly oppose a conservative social agenda. If you believe it’s wrong because your church tells you so, you can’t make that a law. No one around here thinks murder or theft is OK. Those are community-held moral values. You might have come to that from a religious perspective, but it’s not a religious viewpoint.
* Current efforts to abridge contraception access, gay rights, and women’s rights all stem from a conservative Christian perspective. You are free to make whatever choice you like in your own life, but you don’t get to dictate my life, my daughters’ lives, my LGBTQIA friends’ lives because of your personal religious beliefs. You wouldn’t want us to dictate your choices based on our faith, or even on our lack thereof.
* We are still struggling to get it right when it comes to sexism and racism. Many of the systems that run our country were designed in a time when we did not all hold the same understanding of each other that most of us do today. We are beginning to understand collectively the things that many individuals and communities have known for years—our criminal justice system was stacked against people of color in an institutional, systemic way many years ago. We have not yet fully realigned it. Women still provide most care for children, and our failure to require robust family leave undercuts many women’s abilities to support their families.
* At the same time, my strong belief in the 1st amendment makes it difficult for me to support harsher penalties for “hate” crime. We should punish the crime, not the thought, if we dare live up to our own ideals.
* Our poverty rate is a moral failing in the richest country in the world.
* People are not poor because they are lazy. They aren’t poor because they want to be. They aren’t poor because it’s so easy to live off the government.
* If we were going to call ourselves a Christian nation, our poverty rate alone would be enough to indict us at the pearly gates.
* Since we’re not, I’ll make the economic argument that our income inequality and high poverty rate hold back the entire country’s economic potential.
* It is the responsibility of every single American to get the very best education they can, taking full advantage of every opportunity available to us.
* If we’re all going to succeed, we have to stop fighting about how to educate kids and just do it.
* America has nothing to fear but fear itself. Anyone who tells us we should be afraid—they are the ones to fear. Fear holds us back and draws us inward. America is at her shining very best when she focuses outward, full of confidence, not as a bully, but as a beacon to the world.
* The freer the trade, the better off we are. Our industries need far larger markets than this country alone can provide. India and China are far, far larger than we are, and I won’t be surprised if our population is surpassed by another country or two in my lifetime. We have been a supplier to the world, and we must continue to be if you want the economic math to stay in our favor.
* We need to make it easier to gain new skills and transition to new work as technology continues to transform industries. The stagnation we see in some sectors of the economy is almost all related to technology.
* We have to remember to celebrate our growing diversity, not fear it. No immigrants have ever changed this country for the worse. Our world grows smaller every day. We gain so much when we learn new perspectives from each other.
* We must lead when it comes to protecting our earth. We should be the world leader in renewable energy.
* Denying our partnership to our traditional allies will hurt us more than them. Our power comes from our willingness and ability to build strong bonds with other freedom-loving nations.
* We have to believe in each other. We are the ones—all 323-and-some-odd million of us—who have inherited the American dream. That dream is built by believing in each other and in our collective potential. We are all of us essential.

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The Privacy Issues Don’t Either Have to Get Worked Out

Anytime I see new technology mentioned in the popular press, someone will mention this throwaway line:

Well, that’s great, but of course the privacy issues will have to get worked out.

We say that all the time. Digital cameras. iPhones. Google Glass. Facebook. Wearable technology. Massive data sharing. Every tech innovation in our lives, and some reassuring pundit trots out to say, “All the privacy issues will have to be worked out.”

At my local gym, there are signs in the family changing room that forbid you to use a cell phone in the locker room. In theory, I can get kicked out of the gym for looking at a text or an email in the locker room. That’s ridiculous, but that’s the best solution they’ve got for the problem of pervs taking secret photos of other people in the locker room.

I’ve made a number of comments to friends and on Twitter about how angry I am about the NSA data revelations….and the other revelations related to warrantless wiretapping, and all the way back to the Patriot Act.

Make no mistake: I absolutely think our government ought to be using [and developing] the most sophisticated technology to catch bad guys and keep us safe.

But not if they accidentally vacuum up a bunch of innocent Americans’ emails and phone records to do it.

There’s lengthy evidence pointing out that the government often doesn’t even follow its own oversight protocols, never mind that they’re way too lenient for me in the first place. No, I DON’T trust them with my information, and not because I’ve done anything wrong — I haven’t.

Have you ever tested positive for “residue” in a TSA security line? I have. Earlier this year, when I was flying, my water bottle [empty, thank you] tested positive for a suspicious substance. My hands and water bottle both had to get swiped with the mysterious cloths they use, analyzed in a machine. And then I got waved on through. After reading this horrific account, it seems to me that the biggest point in my favor that day in the spring was that I was a middle-aged white woman dressed in blue jeans and a t-shirt.

So no, we don’t have to work the privacy issues out. It certainly seems like we’re not going to bother, in fact. While I am pretty open about lots of my life online, there are entire volumes that aren’t online and won’t ever be. On purpose. Because Western philosophy [used to, anyway] highly regards the individual and his or her rights as an independent being. I have the right not to have the government, or a major corporation, divining and acting on those private items without my permission.

But I also don’t harbor any illusions about the reality of that. So yes, I think Edward Snowden is a hero, and I also think the NSA ought to be able to use the kind of technology he exposed — but ONLY when they can show cause to a judge who has the power to curtail abuse of power. We don’t live in that world today, and at the moment, it doesn’t look like we will anytime soon.

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Scheduling New Ideas Mid-Post

Here’s a simple little blogging trick that I’ve just recently started doing by accident, but it may help you, too.

First, if you’re using WordPress but don’t have the Editorial Calendar plugin, go get it right now. It really helps organize your future posts on a blog, see what topics you’ve covered recently, and keeps you accountable about posting regularly.

Now, I’ve begun to focus more [especially over at the Creek Content website] on putting one solid idea into each post. Sometimes that means I end up with 2-3 posts where I might have had one in the past. But it also means I’ve started to be a more critical editor of my own work. I am evaluating the ideas I put together to ensure they really need to go together. And often I find that I end up with extraneous ideas in a post. They’re not bad ideas, mind you — just not necessary to make the point of that particular post.

Instead of just deleting them, I cut them out of the current post and just create a draft with the germ of the new idea, and I go ahead and schedule it on the Editorial Calendar for my site. Depending on what the idea is, I give myself more or less time to get it done, or I figure out where it fits in conjunction with other ideas I’m planning to discuss soon.

Way simple? Yes. Keeps me from accidentally deleting solid ideas that need a good home? Most definitely.

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Identifying Legitimate Voices

We get into interesting discussions in my disciplines. I feel like a native in both content strategy and information architecture, yet the two very interrelated disciplines are quite different in some ways.

Content strategy is born from two directions:
* Web content creation, editing and management
* Technical communication, which is even older, but now has a significant web presence

Information architecture has roots in library science, but also very clearly in actual architecture, like buildings. Both of these roots make IA the more academically tied of my disciplines.

My journey began in 1995, when I was lucky enough to work for someone who found this whole internet thing interesting, and who was sure there were going to be good ways for organizations to communicate with their customers/members/patients online. We were building client websites by early 1996, and we ran smack into all the issues that pushed the development of these two disciplines.

So my original calling was as a practitioner of these disciplines. And as an early-years practitioner, it was clear that there were no experts. In fact, working for a small, custom publishing firm in Nashville, as soon as I started going to web conferences and talking to other professionals, I quickly realized that I knew just as much as anyone working for a big brand or agency — which is to say, not much.

But we all learned, and over the years and lots of mistakes, these two disciplines emerged. And I grew to be an expert on a number of things related to my work. Hard-earned, sweat-blood-and-tears expertise.

We call these fields “disciplines,” which is interesting in itself, to me. I wouldn’t say that they are “professions,” which to me implies that you get a degree [MD, JD, RN, etc.] or a certification by some authorizing body [CPA, law license, medical license, etc.], or both. While lots of trade associations like to promote certifications, and plenty of perfectly legitimate folks stick letters after their last name, to me, there’s still a big difference between a discipline and a profession.

We also have another interesting distinction, particularly in IA, and that’s between practitioner and academic. I’m in a master’s program in information science at the University of Tennessee [Lord willing I’ll finish in 2014!], and after practicing in my field and related ones for nearly 20 years after my undergraduate degree, I found it very interesting to plunge back into academia.

When you’re a practitioner, you can take any value you like out of academia, and I’d argue the good practitioners do, but you’re most motivated by practical results — thus the title practitioner. Someone who’s practicing. And is practical. [If they aren’t, they won’t be practicing very long.]

When you’re an academic, you don’t have the same pressure to be practical. In fact, you’re judged on an entirely different set of criteria. Did you publish enough this year? In what journals? How many books have you written? What press? Who reviewed your book? What conferences accepted your papers?

I don’t mean to sneeze on these things as a whole — but it’s awfully easy to get entirely divorced from the practical there. So I would also say, the best academics are motivated not just by the surface trappings of their profession, but by the long-term applicability of their work. The best academics stay in close touch with anyone who can use their insights in a practical way, in a symbiotic relationship that grows the discipline as a whole.

Here’s something else that happens when you don’t have a true certification or degree to practice in a field, however: We don’t have any external criteria to identify experts.

And I see a lot of us looking for ways to identify experts….who has standing to speak for us? To us? What is required of someone to stand up and say, “Listen to me!”

I’ve been weighing these things in my mind lately. I’ve done a lot of speaking the last couple of years, and it looks like I’ll do even more in 2013. And since before I started speaking regularly, I thought a lot about whether I was qualified.

My work is very deep in some parts of my disciplines, and barely surface-skimming in others. I have a hybrid of the kind of experience you’d get working at a large agency and what you’d get working for a large corporation, since my entire career has been spent at two small agencies with long-term customers, and one startup. Who’d be interested in what I had to say? Had I worked for enough major brands? Did my work still have value to the larger community? I didn’t have a master’s or doctorate in communication, information sciences, or human-computer interaction.

But I come down on the side that not only does my practical experience have value, so do my ideas that are borne out of that practice. I’ve given different kinds of talks: Some are how-to, some are motivational, some are what-ifs. A couple have been identifying a problem and demanding a solution that I don’t personally have figured out myself.

So in that light, I’m delighted to have helped with a couple of Cranky Talk workshops, the brainchild of Dan Willis and some other experienced speakers. I participated in a Cranky Talk workshop in Chicago in 2011, and “life-changing” would be an understatement. The idea is that new voices matter and have value, and we all ought to be pushing to be our best when we’re sharing ideas.

And then…Boom. There was a little Twitter chat related to this topic between Dan Klyn and Daniel Eizans yesterday, post IA Summit, [two guys I wouldn’t hesitate to call experts], and Dan shared this transcript of Richard Saul Wurman’s keynote at the 2010 IA Summit, which considers the idea of expertise…and stomps it pretty flat. [The transcript is long, but please read it. Really, really valuable.] Wurman says we’re in a world and a discipline that are changing very, very fast, so the idea that we can be “expert” is laughable.

Wow, do I love that.

At the same time, I don’t spit on those who call themselves experts [hey, I’ve done it!], or those of us who look for experts to help guide us. We’re all the blind men feeling the elephant, and it’s going to take all of us to figure it out. Part of the fun is to hear divergent voices and argue the particulars. None of us can own the discipline alone, but we each have important things to offer.

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Spreadsheets: The Content Strategist’s Best Friend

I gave two presentations at Content Marketing World in September, and one of my talks focused on planning and organizing your content work. CMW has a lot of nice sponsors, including a number of companies that make software designed to make content work easier. Or, well, that’s what these applications are supposed to do.

Here’s the thing about content technology: I’ve been in this business oh, going on 20 years now, and one of the first things you learn is that technology rarely lives up to its promise.

In many cases, I’d argue the problem is with the promises, not the technology.

Perhaps this is just the inevitable result of my reducing my expectations over the years. But I’ve seen one too many companies assume that buying or licensing amazing technology would allow them to short-cut their staff and get even better results than people could create. And amazing technology, poorly staffed, is pretty crappy.

There are several kinds of content technology. There’s actual publishing technology, like the WordPress platform I’m writing on right now, and publishing systems that go all the way up to enterprise level. Applications like Microsoft Word serve as a creation platform for words that end up in many other formats eventually [though — strangely to me — Word often ends up being the publishing technology as well, since the Word document is often what gets distributed].

But there’s another type of technology as well, and that’s what’s got me thinking tonight, and what I talked about at CMW, as well. Content project management applications — now you see a lot of social media management applications here too, some of which also combine publishing and project management for social media — are supposed to help us get it all organized.

I’ve tried a number of these. There may be one that works for you. But inevitably, I’ve found that content project management software and applications aren’t flexible enough to meet my needs. There’s always a new application out there, and I’ll keep trying them. But when my team is handling a content project, we’re usually using a spreadsheet.

If you are collaborating, use Google Docs to share a spreadsheet where everyone can edit in real time without ruining each other’s work. If you’re working alone, use Pages, Excel, Google — whatever’s convenient for you.

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Two Lessons From Sandy

First, my hopes and prayers for safety to all those on the East Coast right now. Twitter’s honestly pretty terrifying tonight as Hurricane Sandy has come ashore.

Two things I’ve seen today that bear sharing.

    1. First, if you think your industry is too boring to use social media, I refer you to the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Flickr feed. The account has nearly 3000 photos — they’re taking and sharing pictures of everyday events involving the transit service. Today, those photos included ones like these:
      033Assistant Station Master Cory Harris locked the main entrance to Grand Central Terminal, at 42nd Street and Park Avenue, after the last train departed at 7:10 p.m. on Sunday, October 28. Grand Central closed in advance of Hurricane Sandy.

      09. 2 Broadway in Storm Prep

      Sandbags outside Broadway station

      You never know when the everyday will become extraordinary. Start today so you’ll be ready when it happens.

    2. Second, STOP SCHEDULING YOUR TWEETS. I used to say that scheduling was OK as long as you monitored it, and you were managing your stream in times of national emergency. But clearly, may of you aren’t actually managing your auto-tweets. Those in the US, especially the Eastern US, who are auto-tweeting about anything but Hurricane Sandy tonight look like idiots.

Thanks, rant over.

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The Changing Role of the Professional Association

The design-oriented part of the web industry got itself into a kerfuffle this week when the Usability Professionals’ Association [UPA] announced it was changing its name to User Experience Professionals’ Association [UXPA] and thereby broadening its focus. I don’t really have an opinion on the organization’s rebranding; it’s one of the few associations I haven’t joined and I am not qualified to comment on its work.

But I noticed an interesting strain to the conversation emerging on Twitter in the past day or so, much of it from industry leaders, some of whom I know personally and most of whom I respect. Their take on it was, The professional association is dead so this is just rearranging the deck chairs.

I enjoy playing iconoclast as much as the next snarky web professional, but these arguments struck me the wrong way. I’d like to explain why, but first, let me lay out my many biases.

I’m a joiner. I’m smack in the middle of Generation X, and while we may be the generation that officially oversees the demise of the bowling leagues, in my personal experience, that’s not been entirely true. I’m a member of the American Marketing Association, ASIS&T, and a number of local networking and professional organizations. In the fall of 2011 I was elected to the board of directors of the Information Architecture Institute, an international organization devoted to nurturing the practice and craft of information architecture.

But in this post, I speak only about my personal observations, and certainly not as an official representative of any of these organizations.

And what I see is this: Professional organizations that are still relevant are the ones creating a space — virtual and in-person — for people to come together and share ideas and connections. No doubt that Twitter, LinkedIn and myriad other instances of social media are disrupting this model to a degree, but I continue to see others gaining value from making personal connections and learning from each other via their associations.

I particularly see the need for professional organizations in developing the craft in newer members of the profession. Sure, we can all point to Twitter superstars who showed up and built a community and developed their expertise in full view, but that’s not a defined pathway that most people can walk. Growing and changing — for almost all of us — require a safe, secure space in which we can fail, get support from friendly colleagues, and reach for greater success than we can imagine on our own. This is where professional associations still matter. Plenty of people in all industries work in organizations where they are the only practitioner of their craft; they need a place to go for support.

Yes, associations going forward are going to look a lot different than they did to our parents’ generation, and than when I started my career 20 years ago. They have to. But please, don’t sit at the pinnacle of your career and declare them irrelevant. Too many are coming behind you, and many of them need a formal vehicle to seek your guidance and that of others who’ve already walked their walk.

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The Problem With Health Literacy

At Creek Content, we spend most of our days deep in the world of health care. We work with clients in highly regulated, complex industries, and for the most part, that means we’re working in health care. A fundamental issue for the health care industry is the idea of “health literacy.”

Health literacy is the idea of not just “literacy” — which we tend to think of as the ability to read and comprehend written material — but also includes computational abilities related to health-care self-management. It means, you can find, evaluate, understand and act upon the information you need to manage your own health successfully. It includes the ability to understand your doctor’s instructions, the ability to navigate the insurance and payment systems, and lots more.

Health literacy is a pretty new term, and it’s been the subject of a number of research efforts in the past 20 years. There’s a lot of information now being created to help health-care providers better communicate with their patients, and all of that is for the good.

However, as we work with clients and content [in the United States], I see a fundamental perspective flaw in the way health literacy is often discussed. Usually the message is, your patients are health illiterate, so you must a. educate them or b. dumb down your info. To an extent, I will agree to the factual truth of the first part of that assumption: the U.S. population is not as literate as we might assume. Angela Colter has done some great work not only researching how people with low levels of literacy search, but also bringing together some critical statistics that everyone in public communications should understand. If you work with the general public, about half your audience has low literacy skills.

And in the health care arena, we see a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth over these issues — understandably, to a degree. As a society, our health care knowledge has advanced rapidly in the past 100 years. Cutting-edge research is often incredibly specialized, conducted by researchers with years of post-graduate training. It’s not easy to explain that to the rest of us — the majority of the population without multiple advanced degrees in health topics.

Here’s my problem, though. A lot of the discussion in the realm of health literacy has to do with how we educate patients — how do we make them health literate. And that’s exactly wrong-headed to me. Think about this: Do car manufacturers bemoan the fact that fewer Americans than ever repair their own cars, or could even explain how an internal combustion engine works? Do you see phone companies complaining that we don’t understand the realities of managing complex data networks? Nope — they’ve just figured out how to make us as expert as we need to be to successfully use their products.

Health care is different than buying a car, but we shouldn’t need an advanced degree to manage our own health. If that’s the standard, we might as well give up now. Traditionally, the health care industry has viewed itself [with good reason] as an expert whom we should consult for the right answers. What I think the industry is learning is, that that approach isn’t very effective. If  we all want to be healthier, we have to learn how to communicate better — with each other.

Let me be clear — I think Americans should be more literate, health literate and otherwise. But that’s a systemic educational and cultural issue that I don’t think we can ask the health care industry, or patients alone, to solve. Most importantly, we’re doing patients a disservice by suggesting to each other [and sometimes to patients themselves] that they aren’t literate. That’s blaming the victim, to my mind. No one sets out to be less than fully literate.

Instead, I’d prefer to frame the health literacy issue as a health communication issue. How do we create health communications in forms that are easy for our patients [of all education levels] to understand? How do we carefully structure provider-patient interactions in a way that makes it easy for us to communicate clearly and honestly? How do we make the doctor-patient relationship feel like a partnership?

These things are happening in health care, but not nearly enough. When we figure out how to make health care information accessible to all our patients, then we’ll have done a good day’s work.

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IA Summit: Search Strategies of Users With Low Literacy Skills | Angela Colter

I’m here EARLY Sunday morning for a session with Angela Colter of Electronic Ink. I saw Angela present last summer at Confab on measuring content and it was fabulous. And this topic really applies to my work so I’m really excited this morning. More on users with low-literacy skills in her article in Contents Magazine. 

Two things she wants us to know:

In the US, nearly half the population has low literacy skills. People push back when Colter says this — but she’s not saying they can’t read. But, their literacy skills are deficient to the point where they cannot easily understand and apply printed material.

Literacy includes skills like

  • Word recognition
  • Understanding sentence structure
  • Text search
  • Inference
  • Application
  • Calculations

Canada, UK and Australia have similar levels — in the upper 40s. Switzerland is lucky — only 25%. Portugal is 80%.

Good news: As designers, we can accommodate this population.

There’s a decent body of knowledge about people’s reading printed and online material. Kathryn Summers has done research on how to design online for people with low literacy.

Hasn’t been a lot of research on how they use search.

Colter did exploratory study with 27 people who read at or below 8th grade with three tasks:

  1. Watched them search
  2. “Will it rain tomorrow? Use Google to find out.”
  3. Pretend your doctor prescribed a new drug for diabetes…find out about this drug.

We get to watch an eye tracking study of a man trying to find out whether it will rain tomorrow. First thing he does is scan the entire Google home page. He wants to figure out the answer without having to come up with a keyword. Low-literacy users prefer to browse. When he did type a keyword, he looks at his keyboard, so he doesn’t notice the type-ahead suggestions on the screen.

He gets a search that tells the answer in an icon, but he’s not sure it’s the right answer, so he wants to click on the icon to go to the next page to confirm — but the icon’s not clickable.

Question from audience: Is his desire to confirm partly test effect? Colter says, yes, she’ll talk more about the challenges of moderation at the end, but seeking confirmation of first guess is still common behavior among this population.

This population completed their tasks successfully about 25% of the time.

Now we’re watching a woman looking for information on a drug.

She’s on a results page — she scans all page titles but reads descriptions on sponsored links only. On this page, they are the only ones with sentences and therefore are easiest to understand. They’re also at the top, of course.

Got to a page that had the information, but the first text on the page is the section of Google ad links. She cannot get the scent of information…we see her scanning the non-content-rich parts of the page for a painfully long period of time before she scrolls, and then finally she finds the information. From the eye-tracking, she reads it repeatedly, word for word — sometimes looking away and coming back. She has to be prompted to give the answer — she is not confident in her search either. She can share the information, but she does not paraphrase when explaining — she reads/says the sentence exactly.

Behaviors and Strategies of Low-Literacy Population

  • Failing to complete task/recover from errors
  • Formulating poor search queries
  • Avoiding typing
  • Revisiting visited links
  • Reading every word
  • Avoiding reading
  • Disguising problems

Moderating issues: People would forget the task, they would make up a new task that they could successfully complete, avoiding issues [my son does that for me, I left my glasses at home]. Think-aloud protocols are a cognitive burden for this population, so they can’t talk through what they’re doing while they’re doing it.

Suggestions to Help:

Many of the strategies to make your web page better for a low-literacy population are also the strategies you use to make your web page better for people.

  • Provide type ahead but let it stay
  • Make it easy to read
  • Make it look easy to read
  • Reduce distractions — make it easy to figure out where they information is
  • Address likely questions
  • Summarize, then elaborate
  • One point per page
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