An architect and a storyteller walk into a bar…

by Jen

It is sometimes difficult to answer when people ask “what are you working on?” I can explain the process in abstract terms; “I’m applying a human-centered design approach to science communication.” Or, “I’m going to try out some different communication strategies to see if we can use design to make the truth more compelling than the myths. Or, “I’m making something on the topic of vaccination to see what effect, if any, it will have on people’s attitudes toward vaccines.” These may get a nod or an “ok,” but they don’t really paint a complete picture.

My goal isn’t just to educate, or just to persuade. In fact, my goal at present is to do a little of both and also a little of neither, intentionally, and then identify why or why not they each occur.

I’m not especially tied to vaccines as a personal cause; I’ve just selected it as a necessary topic for my first prototype. And when people ask, “so, I don’t get it- are you making a video? A pamphlet? What?” I have to explain that the medium is still “TBD.” It could be one of those. Or something else. Part of my thesis proposition is that a design approach to science communication means we put the decisions about what it looks like at the end of the design process, where it will be determined by the primary questions about: who should care, why they should care, and how to make them care at the beginning.

Having immersed myself in the more abstract question of who, (by studying cultural worldview, cognitive biases, motivated reasoning, and pretty much all my previous blog post content), and subsequently narrowing that audience, for experimental purposes, to young adults with the potential to make vaccination decisions in the near future, I now turn to the why and how.

I’ve amassed quite a bit of information about vaccines: the history of vaccination, and the history of vaccination skepticism and controversy, the science of immunity, and the modern causes for both praise and concern, warranted and absurd, that vaccination represents.  If my goal is to test out a few strategies, I need to have something to test for: I’ll share the artifact with an audience and determine whether it has any effect on attitudes toward vaccination or trust in scientific consensus.

I’ve been playing with different combinations and structures for said information, trying out linear, interactive, and choose-your-own-adventure paradigms for a viewer’s path through the information. I feel a bit like an architect making several versions of a plan with the same materials in different configurations…

As I work toward a final structure that supports both the educational and persuasive goals for the piece, I’ve also experimented with different framing strategies that may appeal to audiences with different cultural worldviews. For example, a quick survey of historical patterns in vaccine controversy may not call for different frames because it’s a fairly neutral account of historical fact. But the concept of herd immunity, (itself a loaded term if for no other reason than the poorly chosen word herd in the title), may strike a dischordant note with hierarchical-individualists who resent the idea of group dependence, for example, while it may galvanize egalitarian-communitarians who resonate with a “we’re in this together” message. What to do? Re-frame the concept of herd immunity with different metaphors for different cultural worldviews.

I’ll share the results of my efforts in the finished prototype soon… but I’ll assume for now that you’ve never seen herd immunity explained as an ultimate expression of individual freedom, or perhaps as a measure of personal status. Having tried my hand at just this challenge, the question becomes: should we include all the possible metaphors and framing contexts in one artifact, or create multiple versions that somehow self-select depending on the audience? The latter makes more sense for testing out audience effects, but the former is a far more realistic implication for future science communication strategies. This, too, remains “TBD.”

And on a tangential but not unrelated note, as I explore these and similar questions, I have been spending some quality time with two books about… yes… storytelling. Nancy Duarte’s Resonate is an excellent resource for any type of information presentation; I refer to it often. Jonah Sachs’ Winning The Story Wars (a recent release that I read in its entirety on a cross-country flight last month) is a perfect companion when the challenge is not just to present information, but to make your idea, (or the truth), compelling enough to win out over the competition, (in this case, misinformation).

Both draw heavily on the monomyth of the Hero’s Journey, which was made famous by mythologist Joseph Campbell, and has been a secret weapon of successful writers, marketers, and designers since time began. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but there may or may not be a hero’s journey unfolding in the vaccination controversy itself…