Less review, more do.

by Jen

As hard as it may be to imagine, I’m not just reading and writing about all this stuff for the hell of it; there’s actually a master’s thesis project in progress here and it’s probably time for me to begin documenting more process updates, especially as I shift from the exploratory design phase into a more generative design mode. That means I should be synthesizing all this fantastic material on science communication and using it to design and test certain communication strategies. (Of course, I’ll write a more formal literature review in the coming weeks, and I’ll probably share that near the end of November). In the meantime, though, how about an update on what’s happening at my own desk?

Earlier in the semester, I distributed a quick online survey that asked respondents to watch a handful of short videos (found on youtube.com) and rank their preference for each, as well as explain why they liked or disliked each video. As an exploratory survey, it was intended not to confirm a particular hypothesis, but merely to determine which outcomes predicted by my literature review would be observable. The survey included four videos that differed in tone and communication framing; two about vaccines and two about climate change. I also included a handful of personality style and cultural cognition identification scales, (using examples from Fig. 3 in this paper for the latter) to determine if differences would be observable in an admittedly small sample size, within an admittedly short survey.

Analyzing the results (33 respondents) lead me to some good (and some less-than-good) conclusions.

Overall, the survey made it clear that, sure, cultural worldview is observable even on a small scale, but it was a very one-sided scale in this case. It will obviously be important, crucial really, to make future surveys (meant to evaluate the communication strategies I’ll be testing) available to a much wider, and diverse, audience pool. (i.e. I need access to more hierarchical-individualists!) This result was expected, given the short time frame and limited survey audience I had access to.

Perhaps more interestingly, I found the majority of people, when asked why they trusted the video they selected as most trustworthy, said they trusted a video most when its message agreed with their own opinions or feelings on the matter at hand. Relatively few mentioned objectivity, or statistics, or expert, unbiased authority (unless said authorities were again confirming their own previous viewpoint). Respondents were very honest about this reaction, even when they were being asked outright what made something “trustworthy.” Perhaps a bit amateur and not entirely rigorous, I do think this finding fits the cultural cognition theory. I have confidence going forward that it will be useful to evaluate certain communication artifacts within different cultural identity groups and that their feedback will be meaningful.

Following the survey analysis, I decided to throw my reflections on everything I’d read so far up on a whiteboard and start drawing connections. Literally. Though I’ve  reflected on some of my reading in blog posts, I needed to complement that very verbal processing with a slightly more visual synthesis. I began by simply listing several of the more significant readings on the board with key highlights and conclusions from each, (many of which I’ve written out here in one way or another).

As I distilled the major readings into main ideas, themes began to emerge.

 I pulled on some of the common threads to begin forming design implications.

Know the intended audience (to create a coherent message)

  • cultural worldview
  • current beliefs & education on the subject
  • personality/identity
  • preferences and familiarity with certain frames and metaphors

Affirm their cultural identity

  • share infomation in a way that reaches conclusions that fit their worldview
  • frame information with appropriate narratives and metaphors

Establish credibility

  • sources that are perceived to embrace the audience’s worldview are more trusted, regardless of their message content
  • sharing only one perspective, even if it affirms an audience’s views, can backfire; pluralistic advocacy is important

Make it resonate

  • be compelling: appeal to the head, heart, gut, and (sly wink) groin
  • intrinsic motivation
  • storytelling

Ok, so at this point, my rhetoric friends are rolling their eyes and thinking that Aristotle could have told me as much a few thousand years ago; my design friends are wondering why I’ve done all this exploratory user research and haven’t developed any personas yet. But what I have is a very sound foundation for the design process unfolding before me; design is, really, an art in the tradition of rhetoric, (or maybe I should say rhetoric is a design art). The point is, because these insights emerged from a number of places (philosophically and academically) and are specific to science (and risk) communication,  they are more relevant than simply reading a book on rhetoric or design thinking. They are more meaningful.

If you squint enough to blur things a bit, the four insights above look like they might just fall into the triad familiar to anyone who has studied rhetoric: ethos, logos, and pathos. It also looks like the part that has been really problematic for science communication lately is that tricky logos bit; as Carolyn Miller and many others have written about, many in the science community have completely blended up their ethos and logos, treating the former as the latter. The fallout has been a current state where neither is well defined, and work on framing techniques that affirm cultural worldview rather than just intensifying the rational discourse is a relatively recent endeavor.

To the rhetoricians reading, stay tuned to find out how strong my rhetoric will be. To my fellow designers, just replace the word rhetoric with human-centered design and fear not, I have personas:

It may look a little different than the usual design personas, but these research-based profiles function quite the same; I’m putting the first of those four implications listed above in action, by first getting to really know the audience (users, customers, people).

As I dive into the next three insights, I’ll be using a case study, vaccination, as my first prototypical topic. Knowing the audience is one thing, but figuring out how to affirm their worldview is a whole different challenge, and I’ll be documenting all of it along the way. I’ve already begun…

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