Designing Science: A Graduate Thesis Project

a human-centered design strategy for science communication

Publish or perish?

The final thesis document: a process book of sorts, outlining everything I’ve done over the course of a year-long master’s thesis project. It’s all in there. Have a look. You can download the pdf here, or from Carnegie Mellon’s thesis repository here. If you’d like to actually pay for a bound copy, be my guest. You can also find the pdf for the method cards here, and I may try to find a way to provide printed sets of these online as well. Let me know if you’re interested.


Another semester, another poster.

Our school of design’s thesis poster session took place last week. I made a poster, presented it, and then went home and enjoyed my weekend. Feedback was positive, most of which you’ll see in the final thesis document.

Final Thesis Poster jpeg555837_10100160164246409_1242896994_n

Click here for a full pdf of the poster.

If you print it, (and offer it for free, along with snacks), they will come.

Last week I presented a workshop in conjunction with Public Communication for Researchers, here on campus at Carnegie Mellon. We had about two dozen participants. I presented the main ideas from my thesis work, (essentially an updated form of the talk I developed for the TEDxCMU audition, which I also plan to update later this semester with the rest of my thesis insights). I explained the basic ideas of cultural cognition, as well as the framework for science communication that I have developed over the course of the year, and I provided each participant with a paper prototype of the method card set I designed to support this framework. The workshop itself had the dual purpose of both education as well as evaluation for my framework and its potential as a tool for future science communication design.


As I walked through the different values and cultural worldviews described by the cultural cognition theory of communication, and then described the facets of my own communication design strategy, participants reflected on their own values and how their worldview influences their communication. We discussed how these strategies differ from the current approach to science communication.

We worked through a handful of exercises that I’ve included in the method card set, and so doing, I hoped the participants would develop a sense for how this strategy can improve their science communication skills. 

At the workshop, I was able to solicit feedback from 19 in attendance. For me, there was inherent value simply in observing how people made use of the information I was sharing and the cards’ potential usefulness in the workshop itself. However, I was especially interested in how useful these science students and researchers believed this tool might be in the future and I asked them a handful of questions both pre- and post-workshop to evaluate the information itself as well as the potential for such a design tool.  My goal in designing this type of card deck is for scientists to use them both collaboratively and independently, and that its use can be both instructive (via exercises) and inspirational (values and strategies as any-time references). The feedback was promising:


Since the workshop, I have refined the cards a bit further, based on feedback from the workshop participants and others, and I’m beginning to look to the upcoming Thesis Poster Session and how I might share these outcomes on my thesis poster.

You can download the full card set here, and view the slides I used for the workshop presentation here:

When all you have is a method card set, everything looks like a design problem.

Let’s talk about tools.


Sometimes, when people feel they’re onto something  and want to share that something with others, they write a book, or present a workshop, or speak at conferences. Sometimes, they make tools that others might use to do whatever they do, better.

In my case, I spent the first half of this school year figuring out how design thinking can inform science communication strategies. From extensive research and some initial experimentation, I developed a set of strategies that fold a bit of social science, psychology, rhetoric and design together to make science communication more powerful. I tried it out, and found that, indeed, this process works; that is, it seems possible to frame information and design science communication so that people with different values and worldviews can end up on the same page. (Or, at least, pages that are a little closer to each other).

Around that time, I also met the fine folks who founded Public Communication for Researchers, a group of grad students, professors, deans, journalists and science communicators here at Carnegie Mellon University who want to enhance the conversation between the science community and the general public. They were very interested in my thesis work, and I was very interested in working with scientists who find themselves in a position to make use of the strategies I have been designing. I began thinking less about repeating the type of study I ran with the information piece on vaccines, and more about how best to make my findings useful for others: should I produce a booklet of tips and techniques? A style guide? A workshop, a curriculum, a webinar, a presentation? Having developed a short talk for my TEDxCMU audition and sharing that with the PCR folks, I realized they would be a fantastic group to work with, whatever my choice, because they are themselves interested in not only better communication strategies, but teaching these strategies to others.

They asked me to present a workshop, which I’ll be conducting next week. I started to think about the curriculum, asking myself what others would need to know if they are to apply the same process I did for the vaccine piece with any level of success. I thought about other methods people have used to share design principles with designers and non-designers alike… and next thing I knew, I found myself designing a tool kit (how predictable) that could help people apply the understanding I’ve developed over nine months to their own communication design.

Perhaps you’ve seen some of the more designerly versions of this kind of tool: the IDEO method cards, Frog’s Collective Action Toolkit, the Design with Intent Toolkit, and so on. These were the first kind of tools that came to mind, but I wanted to explore several types of guides, method cards, and other tools to see what they have to offer, comparing strengths, weaknesses, and intentions. In addition to the more obvious choices mentioned above, I also got my hands on Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, Luma Institute’s Innovating for People Planning Cards, a set of psychology tidbits for UX designers called Mental Notes, The Decision Book, and the Activity Deck to accompany Jonah Sachs’ book: Winning the Story Wars.

Some of these tools are really just a deck full of somethingsLuma and IDEO’s cards are a collection of techniques or methods, divided into categories, that people can try in the practice of human-centered design.


The Mental Notes and Oblique Strategies sets are, similarly, a set of somethings, but they are not a collection of techniques. Instead, they are a collection of things to think about. Mental Notes is really just a set of psychology principles, and the user is prompted to reflect on how that particular (drawn at random?) card might inspire their work. The Oblique Strategies deck is a little more esoteric (but also my favorite); it wasn’t created specifically for designers and I think that makes it a little more interesting, if a little less practical in its usefulness as a collection of non-sequiturs.tools4

Meanwhile, The Decision Book is a collection of models, mostly visualized through diagrams and illustrations, for strategic decision making. Even though it’s not a card set, it could function similarly; open randomly to a page (if you’d like), or use the table of contents to search for something in particular.tools3

Finally, the Story Wars Activity Deck is a little different. Because it accompanies a book, it is less a stand-alone tool than the others, but also more instructive. It consists of three activities and the accompanying Values and Archetypes cards help users brainstorm and apply the ideas Sachs discusses in the book. This card set caught my attention for that reason: it functions not as a collection of somethings, but instead as a proxy for a teacher or mentor. It’s a set of exercises.


I wondered if I could combine the strengths of these different styles of toolkits to produce something useful, usable, and desirable for science communicators in particular. A structure like the exercises in the Story Wars deck would be very useful, but without the luxury of an accompanying book, I’d need to find a way to include the content itself within the set. The other decks that function more as a collection of individual somethings offer the ability to to be drawn at random, to provide inspiration or prompt reflection, where the Story Wars cards cannot. How might I combine these and tweak them a bit to fit the goals for my design process?

I decided I needed to incorporate five types of information:

  • The actual content. The information about cultural cognition, values, and other principles a person would need to understand in order to use the toolkit.
  • The strategies. The key ideas that I have crystallized into a design process for science communicators.
  • Exercises. The techniques people can try, using this tool, to develop skills that make use of the information they now have.
  • Context. The background info, a few key studies, anything that helps flesh out the process.
  • Supplementals. To make exercises possible, I need to include any other materials that would be used with those exercises.

Essentially, those categories boil down to:

  • What do I need to know?
  • Why do I need to know this information?
  • How do I use this information?
  • When & where should I use use it?

So I set about designing just such a tool…

photo 4

And when I present my workshop for PCR next week, I’ll also be able to give the participants a paper prototype of it. Right now it consists of 28 cards that cross reference each other and provide each of the five categories I described above.

paper prototype

The goal, of course, will be for participants to take said tool (kit? cards? set? still looking for a better term!) back to their colleagues and, ideally, use them in collaborative settings to reproduce the learning I’ll aim to impart at the workshop. Most researchers spend their time researching, not communicating, but my hope is that a tool like this one might help them feel more confident to apply some of the knowledge I have developed on the design of science communication.

photo (9)

In my experience, tools like the IDEO or Story Wars cards are most useful, not when I’m sitting alone at my desk, but when I use them to communicate about design principles and methodologies with others. I’m hoping that, where a simple collection or a single activity may fall short, this science communication design tool will be able to function as both a collection of informational cards and a more structured set of activities, together, with the flexibility to be used differently for different needs. Of course, we’ll have to see what kind of feedback I get on this prototype… this is an iterative design process after all. I’ll write more about the feedback and the workshop next week.

When archetypes become stereotypes…

What happens when you ask people who have become at least somewhat familiar with cultural cognition to take a stab at personifying the four cultural worldviews along the group/grid map? Well, if you ask the people who study cultural cognition for a living, they will give you answers like these:

(from Dan Kahan)

What you are asking about here is complicated; I’m anxious to avoid a simple response that might not be clearly understood as very very simplified.

(from Donald Braman)

There clearly aren’t just four types of people out there, but the signals we send to each other about who we are and the values we affiliate ourselves with does a lot of work for us.  If those signals were too esoteric and diverse, they wouldn’t do us much good.  So people develop a sort of social shorthand about the kinds of things that make sense to us and how they cohere, and we signal to each other with those commitments. Various issues become a kind of currency of social identity and a short-cut to both trust and coordinating action.
What follows that any construction of “types” and “beliefs” will be contingent on the historical moment and the cultural conflicts that inform it. We do our best to capture a the major values inform identity, conflict, and factual belief in this time and place in two cross-cutting dimensions, but one could come up with fewer or more and tell another plausible story.  We hope we hit a sweet spot balancing simplicity and explanatory power in the dimensions and measures we use.  But the star of the show isn’t a typology derived from those value-dimensions, it’s the fundamental social-cognitive link between values and factual beliefs in setting after setting.

In other words, the social scientists are hesitant to provide stereotypical qualities, and for very good reason. Cultural cognition isn’t a typology, it’s a mechanism. People don’t fall neatly into the four ‘quadrants’ like four neatly defined personality types; they hold values and develop worldviews that shape how people interpret information and make decisions. That said, I always find it worthwhile to prod a bit, even when it means venturing into the overly simplified or overly unrealistic or overly absurd- as part of a good design practice. Sometimes creating a very, very low resolution picture of something is the only way to get a mental picture at all- we can always fill in the fine grain details moving forward. It also helps people who are trying to understand something for the first time to see distinct boundaries- even if reality shows those boundaries are not distinct (or even real) on closer inspection.

Meanwhile, if you ask a handful of designers who have also become somewhat familiar with cultural cognition to do the same thing, (to personify the four ends of the cultural cognition value scales), you get an entirely different outcome: they push archetypes into stereotypes, and then push those stereotypes as far as they’ll go, into the land of the almost uselessly absurd, (all the while acknowledging- nay, constantly repeating- that none of these stereotypes are realistic in their simplicity).

Of course, this is just an exercise. None of the results are to be taken as anything but an exploration of perceptions about values. But, it’s certainly interesting to ask how the different group/grid values (individualist, communitarian, hierarchical, egalitarian) manifest in people, real vs. imagined, based on those perceptions. Here’s what you get:

photo 2

Yes, we’ve determined Godzilla is an egalitarian-individualist. And yes, Robin Hood is probably misplaced… where do you think he belongs?


By the way, I should point out that both Kahan and Braman were very helpful in their (much longer) responses- they’ve been instrumental in my ever-developing mental model of cultural cognition and its potential as a teaching tool for science communicators. Kahan has also just posed this question on his own blog, and I’m looking forward to the responses.

Stay tuned for a more in-depth explanation of just what I’m aiming to actually do with this kind of exercise…

Survey says…?

The results are in, and they are… ambiguous. Ok, just kidding. There are some clear implications but they require a bit of unpacking, so unfortunately I can’t lead off with a straightforward headline like “All hierarchical-individualists like weaponry metaphors!” If you’ll read along, however, you’ll see that the results are, in fact, positive and, I think, illuminating. In case you’ve forgotten (or never been here), I created an informational piece about vaccines to test out the design strategies I’ve been developing. The accompanying survey garnered 70 complete responses. (A lot more people viewed it and started the survey, but only 70 provided quality answers to the open ended items, so those are the ones I am working with). Right off the bat I have to admit I’m disappointed in that number; I tried my best to get this survey in front of as many people, and as wide a variety, as possible. Alas, without funding to offer compensation for respondents or to pay for services that promote surveys online or via telephone, my options were fairly limited and within the scope of a 9-month thesis project I have to accept these constraints.

The survey collected respondents’ demographic information as well as their ‘cultural worldview,’ (you can read the basics here and here if you need a refresher), using the screening questions described by Kahan in his conception of cultural cognition (fig. 3 in the paper). Respondents indicated the level of their “disagreement” or “agreement” with each item on a Likert response measure in order to place each respondent on a map at the intersection of two scales: hierarchical-egalitarian and individualist-communitarian. Each respondent then answered a handful of questions about vaccination to assess factual knowledge about vaccination as well as attitudes toward vaccination. After viewing the informational piece, the respondents were asked the same questions about attitudes (to determine if the piece had any effect on attitudes) as well as prompted to share what they found most and least appealing about the piece, and to identify which arguments for vaccination were most appealing or resonant to them.

respondents worldviews-01-01

As you can see, I did not get very many responses from those with hierarchical values. On the one hand, this is disappointing because I designed the vaccine piece to test whether certain ways of framing information appealed to each of the four quadrants of viewers, so I need people in those quadrants to make this study valid. On the other hand, I had previously identified that much of the vaccine “controversy” unfolds along the individualist-communitarian line, because most of the pro-vaccination messaging we see is designed by, and for, egalitarian-communitarian values and those with more individualist (whether hierarchical or egalitarian) values are left to worry about individual risk with little attention paid to their concerns. There is still a good spread of responses from individualist to communitarian, so despite my disappointment in the overall cross section, I decided to forge ahead with the data analysis to find out what I could.

The first numbers I wanted to see were about attitudes. I asked the same six questions before and after respondents viewed the vaccine piece to see if viewing it would have any affect. Each item was a Likert scale measure:

“For each of the following items, please indicate where your opinion lies on a spectrum between the two statements.”

  • Vaccines are safe — Vaccines are not safe
  • I would definitely have (or already had) my children vaccinated — I would definitely not (or have already opted not to) have my children vaccinated
  • Childhood vaccines do not cause autism — Childhood vaccines can cause autism
  • Everyone should be required to vaccinate — Vaccination should be completely optional
  • Relying on natural immunity instead of getting vaccinated is risky — Natural immunity is better than vaccinating
  • Vaccination is a good idea — Vaccination is not worth the risk

Before viewing the piece, the average attitude toward vaccines was overall slightly positive. Those scoring individualist tended to feel less positive, while the communitarian responses were a little more positive- but all within a range that wasn’t statistically significant. There was not a statistically significant correlation between the change in responses and cultural worldview either. That is, people were predisposed to feel a certain way about vaccines and while that attitude may have changed slightly after viewing the piece, the extent of that change itself was not tied to any worldview: individualists and communitarians alike tended to adjust their attitudes by roughly the same amount. The item was scored as a sum of the six questions (five-point Likert measures), so a person feeling completely neutral would score 0, a person with more negative attitudes would score -1 to -12 and a person with more positive attitudes +1 to +12.

The average score before viewing the piece was +6.9 and after viewing was +7.4. Nice to see a positive change, to be sure, but it’s not a significant change at all (statistically or otherwise). Generally, most people’s scores did not change by much: some increased (and a small handful decreased) by one or two points (for example, someone who was neutral about the autism link before may have changed their reply to be one step closer to the statement that vaccines do not cause autism), and a very small number showed significant increases. One person’s score increased by 5 points and another by 8 points (both very strong egalitarian-communitarians), which would correspond to someone choosing more positive answers on most, if not all six, of the questions… but the overall positive trend resulted from a larger number of people with small (+1 or +2) changes- perhaps on just one or two of the questions. Generally, with a change this small, we really can’t assume anything- some people may have felt no change in attitude at all and simply changed their answer by one or two steps in either direction because they didn’t realize which one they had selected five minutes earlier, before viewing the piece.

I certainly don’t think one should take very much away from these results; I included this item out of sheer curiosity but it’s silly to think a single viewing of a single artifact could have a significant effect (and certainly not lasting) on a person’s attitudes. Without any correlation to respondents’ cultural worldview, this information doesn’t offer much; however, the overall positive trend (however small) does suggest that the piece wasn’t detrimental or polarizing, which is a good thing.

On to the arguments themselves. As you hopefully already know, the vaccine piece included an opening conversation about seat belts as a metaphor for vaccination, followed by a chart that illustrated how anti-vaccination movements over time have contributed to increases in preventable disease, and concluded with a handful of arguments for vaccination that were framed for different worldviews and presented under the guise of three questions.


The “why should I” arguments included information framed in a way that I thought would be most compelling for those with communitarian (and to an extent, egalitarian) values. They focused on community responsibility and interdependence. (Clicking on each item took the viewer to more information about each statement):

should i

The “why would I” arguments included information framed in a way that I thought would be most compelling for those with individualist values. They focused on the benefits to the individual and followed a “me against the world” theme through comparisons to training and protection:

would i

The “why wouldn’t I” arguments included information that I didn’t frame for a particular worldview; instead I hypothesized that this information would be fairly neutral in its attempts to debunk some commonly held myths about vaccination. I used plain, straightforward language, statistics, and a neutral tone.

wouldnt i

And at the end the survey I asked respondents to identify which of the arguments (of these nine) they found most appealing or resonant. Here are the results:

worldview scatter preferred arguments-01

At first glance, this graph looks like it shows a lot of nothing, or at least a lot of randomness. But let’s take a closer look. First, notice that no one chose the very last argument that debunks the myth about overloading immune systems, so it’s not included in the graph at all. Next, let’s consider what might be expected. In a way, I might have been hoping to see a whole bunch of blue on the left and red on the right (that is, the arguments that  thought were individualist should have appealed to the individualists, and the arguments I thought were communitarian should have appealed to the communitarians). That’s definitely not the case; there is certainly a good amount of variability in the preference for different arguments. In hindsight, I have to admit that a) if that had really happened, it would have been a bit disconcerting- people are certainly not that one dimensional, and b) this result is a little more interesting (and I think, encouraging) because it suggests that there is potential for people with different cultural worldviews to find the same sort of messages compelling (even if for different reasons, which I’ll expand on below).

Just to be thorough, though, I decided to map these results purely on a horizontal individualist-communitarian scale:

horizontal scale-02-02And it would seem this graph does illustrate a little bit of a trend. Not a strong one, but it appears the individualist (why would I) arguments are more popular toward the individualist end of the scale, and vice versa. So, my original hypothesis isn’t completely shattered- there’s definitely something going on here- and it seems in general the ‘individualist arguments’ were more popular with ‘individualists’ and so on. We can better understand what’s really going on here by investigating the actual text responses.

But, before I get to that, how about the green items? These were the arguments that I thought would be fairly neutral, that basically provided evidence in the form of statistics that debunk the myth of an autism/vaccine link and dispel the notion that vaccines cause severe reactions. It sure looks like those arguments were preferred by the communitarians, because all but one of the people who chose those arguments as their favorite fell on the communitarian side of the map. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this result but it’s interesting. I wonder if it doesn’t have a little bit to do with some confirmation bias- the folks who are already fairly pro-vaccination (probably communitarians) may have mentally highlighted this information, in its neutrality, for supporting their previously held beliefs, while those who were anti-vaccine (or more accurately, fairly neutral on the subject overall, most likely individualists) had a correspondingly lukewarm reaction to this type of neutral language and wouldn’t have chosen it as the most appealing argument. It could also just mean that some of the people who scored as communitarians just preferred the statistics over more specifically communitarian language (which then leads me to wonder why more individualists didn’t also feel that way). I may explore this result a bit further in the future.

Onto the open ended responses. I asked the respondents to identify which part(s) of the vaccine piece appealed to them most, or resonated most with them, and why, as well as the reverse, (which part(s) appealed to them least). Before I talk about the general findings from that info, let’s look at the first graph again. I was curious about all those people who scored as individualists but claimed to prefer a communitarian (why should I) argument, as well as the communitarians who preferred what I thought were individualist (why would I) arguments. What’s going on there? Is this proof that I, as a designer trying my hand at this stuff for the first time, simply did a bad job of framing information specifically for what I thought were communitarian and individualist arguments? Or is some of the underlying theory, based on so much social science, flawed in its application to this kind of communication design?

Or… maybe these folks are choosing arguments I didn’t expect them to choose, but for reasons I would expect them to give. Consider the following responses:

worldview scatter preferred arguments HIGHLIGHTED POINTS-03

Respondent A, who scored on the individualist end of the spectrum, claimed the arguments about herd immunity and community responsibility were most appealing, but in the open ended response, also stated:

the issues here seem to be about overall societal importance; I see this as an individual choice but it also made me think about the overall effect on society.

Perhaps this respondent is saying, as an individualist, the individualist arguments may resonate more but the communitarian arguments actually achieved some level of convincing beyond his or her current views. The “I never thought about it that way before” sentiment is echoed throughout the text responses at a significant level, and it may explain some of the ‘unexpected’ points on the graph.

Take respondent B, who also scored as an individualist, (though less individualist than respondent A). He/she also identified a communitarian argument as the most resonant, and in the open ended section described the most appealing part of the whole piece as being prompted to

reflect on my views on society’s good vs. individual freedom

And to explain why, said:

it forced me to take the greatest time to consider my answers. I spend quite a deal of time trying to develop and revise my own personal, internally-consistent political philosophy.

Thank you, respondent B, for being so thoughtful. And explaining why you, as an individualist, ended up finding a communitarian argument most appealing.

Similarly, respondent C, a communitarian who chose an individualist argument, said this:

vaccination is a safe procedure and the outcome benefits us all, as individuals and as members of society


clearly, to get vaccinated is an individual responsibility, but not in every case- sometimes you pay a high price, or things make them unavailable to a great portion of the society, government should be responsible for making the vaccination process available to all the population.

This type of response suggests that this person does, indeed, share communitarian values and sees vaccination as a community responsibility, but perhaps found the argument about arming one’s immune system with weapons to fight disease as a good case to make to a government whose job it is to defend its citizens.

Respondent D, also a communitarian who chose the argument about arming one’s immune system, wrote:

good points that I liked: societal obligation vs. individual choice, allocation of risk and which to minimize i.e. getting vaccinated creates a tiny risk for my child but significantly reduces societal risk whereas without vaccines I PERCEIVE to have all risk eliminated for my child but society may take on greater risk…

I am highlighting these handful of examples to illustrate what I’ve learned: sure, individualists do seem to prefer the arguments I expected to be compelling for individualists, and communitarians do seem to prefer the arguments I expected to be compelling for communitarians, but that effect is not dramatic. Perhaps more importantly, there is evidence to suggest that two people with different values may both find the same message appealing, but for different reasons- and those reasons are consistent with their values. Individualists like respondents A and B may have found the information framed for communitarian values appealing, but both expressed their reasoning through language consistent with individualist values, and the same is true for C and D for communitarian values.

Of course, this may not be the case for every single respondent (and likely isn’t), but my analysis of the open text responses supports this general interpretation. What’s more, it’s encouraging to see that a science communicator can look for ways to frame information with a few carefully crafted metaphors and creativity in voice and narrative, and expect to reach audiences with different values who may find overlapping arguments resonant, even if they do so for different reasons. At this point, the major take away may be that it’s more important to avoid alienating a particular audience than it is to meticulously engineer a message for a specific cultural worldview, which may be where this particular piece about vaccines was most successful. As I continue to consider how I can put this knowledge in the hands of science communicators, it is reassuring to think that a solid understanding of cultural cognition and a willingness to include all four ends of the value scales may be all it takes to get some ideas through the psychological door of otherwise resistant audiences.

Finally, I explored the open text responses for common themes among what people found most and least appealing. As a quick and completely non-scientifically-valid exercise, I threw them all into wordle, because hey, why not.

The responses from those with individualist values:

individualists-what resonated most

The responses from those with communitarian values:

communitarians-what resonated most

Of course these are mostly meaningless but I did get a good chuckle out of the difference in word frequency among the two groups.

As for the meaningful results, I analyzed the text for the most commonly cited examples of what respondents found “most appealing” and “least appealing.” Most people elaborated on what they found most compelling and resonant, but several did not answer the same question about “least appealing,” or did so with little elaboration, so there are fewer responses for the negative aspects of the piece.

The most common items cited as most appealing (with at least five mentions) were:

  • providing multiple viewpoints (25 mentions)
  • the seat-belt metaphor (12 mentions)
  • the timeline depicting anti-vaccination movements (7 mentions)
  • the old anti-vaccination propaganda and painting (6 mentions)
  • presenting facts and statistics (6 mentions)
  • the conversational tone (5 mentions)
  • the interactivity (5 mentions)

The most common items cited as least appealing (with at least three mentions) were:

  • the pace of the opening conversation (12 mentions)
  • the seat-belt metaphor (4 mentions)
  • not enough statistics (3 mentions)

most appealing least appealing

You can see that while most of the positives cited by respondents relate to content, most of the negatives refer more to the form of the piece itself, (which admittedly could stand to be refined a bit more, I agree the pacing is slow in the opening segment, among other things).

Interestingly, while many cited the seat-belt metaphor as a strength of the piece, some seemed to hate it. Here’s what those four people had to say:

these two issues seem to disparate in terms of societal importance

I was actually one of those people who was in a car accident and I was saved by not wearing a seat belt

seat belts are a bad argument and not a consistent parallel: someone who is afraid of being caught in a burning car because of a seat belt can carry a pocket knife while still benefiting from seat belts

I guess honestly I feel like seat belts are more important (for adults) than vaccinations

The first two responses were from people who scored very strongly individualist and the second two scored strongly communitarian, and all four were strongly egalitarian, so I can’t draw any conclusions about cultural cognition’s effect here; there will always be a few people who simply don’t experience information the way a majority of others do. However, it seems like their dislike of the metaphor stems either from unusual personal experiences or strongly held opinions about seat belts. Since my choice of seat belt metaphor hinged on the assumption that most people would agree that they are a good idea and wise for both individual and community benefit, it makes sense that anyone who doesn’t enter the conversation with that philosophy may dislike the entire comparison.

The most compelling implication seems to be the power of making someone see a subject in new light, of presenting information in multiple forms or from multiple perspectives, and ultimately helping someone experience that “I never thought of it that way before” moment.

Consider the following quotes, each of the following comes from different respondents who scored as communitarian:

On the concept of vaccination as a right

I had never thought about them that way

On the concept of vaccinating children as an individual choice to avoid risk,

I have never really thought about it in that light

On the myth of an autism-vaccine link,

I hadn’t paid much attention to the autism debate, it was satisfying to have a clear answer

On the risk that comes from others who may chose not to vaccinate,

I hadn’t considered that aspect before as much as the others

On the seat-belt metaphor,

it’s a good common sense argument that made me stop and think about the risks of not vaccinating

made me stop and think about tradeoffs between different types of risk on a problem I didn’t already have a sensitivity on

And, each of these from different respondents who scored as individualist:

On the seat belt metaphor,

it made me think more about what the government’s role in vaccination could/should be

On the timeline depicting past anti-vaccination sentiment

it was the one part of the entire presentation I never thought about before

I never thought people had the same fears decades ago

On the concept of vaccination as a responsibility

it made me stop and think about it in a new way


All in all, I consider these results encouraging. While I initially expected to see a more drastic split in the types of arguments that resonated at each end of the cultural worldview spectrum, hindsight suggests that would have been a disappointing result and would have implied the need to carefully integrate distinct narratives and metaphors any time we might wish to communicate with large and varied audiences. I was able to design a piece that did just that for the purposes of a study, but in the wider world where no single communication artifact operates outside a larger ecology of information exchange, it becomes exponentially more challenging to engineer a way to unify those disparate messages into one piece.

Thankfully, these results suggest that it may not be necessary, or even ideal, to frame information uniquely for each cultural worldview, but instead just to prioritize the inclusion of multiple perspectives and avoidance of polarizing language. This implication aligns perfectly with the significance of pluralistic advocacy in my design strategy; providing multiple perspectives that affirm, in one manner or another, the values of each cultural worldview, provides opportunities for individuals to align with the messages that resonate most, regardless of whether it is due to those messages’ affirmation of cultural identity, or because they provide an opportunity for welcome reflection and adjustment of views on a subject they had previously only considered in a different light. I’m really looking forward to bringing this perspective forward into the development of design tools that will be useful for science communicators who want to put these strategies to work in the world.

Director’s cut

As promised, I have finally recorded the longer version of the talk I presented in PechaKucha format at Interaction13. I like this version a lot more than the PechaKucha version, but it still isn’t perfect. However, (‘room for improvement’ aside), I don’t have a lot of spare time to work on it right now and I just wanted to get it down in some digital form; that way it’s easier for me to share the info with others.

It’s a decent way for me to give some context to my work, (I discuss more of the background research that I’m building on), and talk a little more specifically about my own design experimentation so far, in a convenient 25 minute package. It is still, however, a fairly high level talk, which I hope will make it more appealing to those of you who may want to share it with others, but I understand also leaves out the fine grain details on just exactly how I’ve applied these strategies to the vaccine piece, and where I’ll take them next as I think about ways to put them in the hands of science communicators. Of course, I will keep writing about those details here on the blog,  and I may work up a more ‘final’ version of this talk at the end of my project in the spring where I’ll certainly dive a little deeper into the details and give more concrete examples. For now, have a look and let me know what you think:

I’ll give up my vaccines when you pry them from my cold, dead hands.

So you’re wondering about that first prototype I made (and keep casually mentioning). You can (finally) view it here:

Vaccination: A Conversation

A few words on its design, (beyond the many, many words I’ve already written): it’s not meant to be a completely polished and perfect piece, but instead it functions as a vehicle for communicating about a scientific topic and in the process, testing out a handful of strategies.

In making this artifact, I applied the process I developed from my exploratory research.


As I followed that process, I asked myself how different groups of people tend to view vaccination. I imagined all the ways a science communicator could frame the facts about vaccination in ways that resonate specifically with different cultural worldviews and speak to different types of concerns. A lot of the messaging we currently see on vaccination safety focuses on herd immunity and social responsibility, which is well and good if your audience consists of communitarian-egalitarians. But what of the hierarchical-individualists? Even if you’re in the “ignore the denialists!” camp, you have to admit that ignoring anti-vaccination movements will be problematic for everyone.

So how might we craft a message about vaccines that makes vaccination seem like the ultimate expression of patriotic, personal freedom? How do we mobilize an NRA level reaction to the idea of not-getting-vaccinated? (Hence the title of the post). Of course, that’s getting a little extreme, but pushing those boundaries helps generate ideas and when scaled back, provide some good foundations for metaphor and narrative selection. For example, I characterized some of the arguments for vaccination in terms of personal defense, armor if you will, in a battle to stay healthy. In a future post I’ll share the results from a study I conducted with this prototype that illustrates whether this kind of strategy worked, and with whom.

Also worth mentioning: I made one artifact instead of multiples. I explained this a bit in the development of my thesis poster, but to recap:

1. A single unified piece is more feasible if I’m going to suggest these strategies for others to use. Most individuals and even organizations won’t have the resources to conduct targeted demographic marketing.

2. Even if said organizations did have the ability to do so, that kind of strategy would be duplicitous and certainly prove problematic for reputation and credibility. The scientific community’s job is to tell the truth about what they have learned- not to sell specific ideas. It is therefore important to draw a very stark contrast between spinning or marketing or advertising, which I would avoid at all costs, and simply framing the same information (with all necessary scientific integrity and accuracy) by using different metaphors and weaving various narratives around it. Obviously, it’s a challenge to frame information differently for different audiences within a single piece, but I did it in this case by presenting information in different ‘voices’ (suggested by different typefaces) in a conversation dialogue, and then providing the different arguments for vaccination through subtle language cues.

It was suggested during the recent poster session that I should be looking at entire ‘ecosystems,’ rather than a singular piece, and I feel it important to note that I’m not suggesting my work will somehow provide a way for us to create a single piece that can be a panacea to the denial or controversy surrounding a science topic. Rather, these types of communication pieces are vehicles for me to test strategies. Those strategies may in turn be applied over larger efforts (ideally) and I am going to think more about that in the coming weeks, especially in designing ways to turn my new understandings into actionable insights for others.

Design and science communication, together on the big screen.

As I mentioned a few months ago, I was selected to present a PechaKucha talk at this year’s Interaction Design Association (IxDA) conference in Toronto, Interaction13. If you’re not familiar, PechaKucha is a format where speakers must use exactly 20 slides, running for 20 seconds each, to present their ideas or story. For me, it was a  fun challenge to condense the main ideas of my thesis work into a 6 minute, 40 second talk (and in the end, I wasn’t thrilled with the outcome but it was fun and I learned quite a bit). Several people approached me with great feedback and lots of input and I look forward to the continuing conversations I’ll have in the coming weeks with many who found an interest or for whom these ideas resonated.

Originally, I developed the narrative arc of this talk in a longer format, with more detail and examples particularly about my own work that build on these ideas, and that version delivered me through several rounds of auditions for the student speaker competition associated with the upcoming TEDxCMU event this March. (I was, alas, not selected for that honor but made it to the finalist round nonetheless, and also came away with some excellent new leads for the future of my work; you’ll see more of that soon). That process was immensely helpful in crystallizing my thesis work into concrete main ideas and aided in the development of my thesis poster last semester.

I’ve decided since the PechaKucha talk went over so well and I didn’t end up being selected to give the longer talk at TEDxCMU, I will record the longer (better) talk myself so I can share it easily here and elsewhere. (Hopefully sometime later this week). In the meantime, feel free to watch this shorter version from Interaction13.

The frame game.

I stumbled across this video today. I’ve referred to a good chunk of Matthew Nisbet’s work throughout this project, but I was surprised how well he hit the high notes in this short clip. If our goal is to effectively frame science communication so that audiences accept scientific consensus, we have to know how to measure the effects of that framing; we have to know what frames are being used to generate controversy before we can re-frame messages to avoid it. In other words, we have to understand the current state, design for a future state, prototype, evaluate, iterate, lather, rinse, repeat.

I’ll post soon with details about my first prototype and the information it’s providing me about audience effect… hopefully Nisbet’s comments will sound familiar when I do.

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