What they said…

by Jen

I promised an update on the feedback I received during the poster session (and some conversations that followed). A few common themes emerged that day:

  • ethical concerns
  • applications beyond science communication
  • education vs. persuasion
  • rhetoric vs. “marketing”
  • is this really human centered design?

One of the most common questions I hear center around people’s concerns regarding ethics. It’s a question I’m pretty well prepared for at this point, and I find with a little explanation most people understand that my goal is not to trick, deceive, or otherwise manipulate the public. And it’s not to “spin” science either, even though that’s where everyone’s mind eventually wanders, providing ammunition for those who would oppose any type of design approach to science communication in the first place. It’s only natural that a suggestion to tailor messages for different audiences will bring up concerns about accuracy, integrity, and in an age where the power of good storytelling and communication framing are pitted against the actions of people like Jonah Lehrer, it’s a valid concern. Matthew Nisbet has written very eloquently on this topic and much of his arguments echo my own sentiments:

We’re not saying that scientists and their allies should “spin” information; doing that would only harm their credibility. But discussing issues in new ways and with new messengers can be accomplished without distorting the underlying science. Good communication is by its very nature informative rather than misleading. Making complicated issues personally meaningful will activate public support much more effectively than blinding people with science.


A few people asked if I had considered applications of my work beyond science communication, and I had to admit that I really hadn’t pursued any specific avenues for this kind of design approach beyond my specific focus on science controversies; but surely the methods I’m applying here can and should be applied to other fields of communication if they can help reach audiences in more meaningful ways. It’s been reaffirming to find people supportive of my efforts and interested in the strategies I’m applying, but very telling when someone suggests these might be relevant for public policy, for example, or on subjects unrelated to science, when, in fact, these strategies are being imported from other fields and into science communication. Plenty of people already know how to communicate in a very, very compelling way, and I see science as one of the last frontiers that have yet to join the party. Of course, some have; certainly those wanting to manufacture doubt and controversy and undermine consensus have been using these strategies for decades, but to me the most important application of my research isn’t in expanding outward but in arming scientists with a playbook that lets them use everything we know about people and communication to make good science meaningful.


Some people tend to assume (at first glance, anyway) that my project is just about education; that I’m simply studying how we might make science easier to understand. That’s a critical component to the work but it’s not the whole story. Forgive me the word but yes, there is an implied persuasion involved here too. Before that look of disgust crosses your face, consider that persuasion doesn’t have to be a dirty word. Persuasion, and the art of achieving it we all know and love as rhetoric, does not imply lying or manipulation. For example, consider the last time you were genuinely persuaded to do or not do something: were you lied to? Manipulated? Strong-armed, forced, or tricked? Those behaviors are not persuasion. It’s a subtly different beast, to persuade someone. In my case, and in the work of many whose research I am building on, persuasion is the end goal: to persuade people of the consensus that exists on a particular topic, to persuade people that a particular scientific recommendation is built on sound empirical evidence, to persuade people that a scientific outcome and it’s implications do not necessarily threaten their way of life. It’s not an effort to coerce, or to nudge, only to persuade. And as Kenneth Burke put it:

Wherever there is persuasion, there is rhetoric, and wherever there is rhetoric, there is meaning.

One additional question I get in this vein is whether I’m really just targeting communication the way a marketing department would. If I’m learning about different groups of people and framing information so that it’s meaningful to them, isn’t that just advertising? I bristle at the notion, but it’s important for me to defend myself against the misconception. This project isn’t about advertising, or marketing, except in some superficial parallels. For one thing, marketing breaks people into categories based on demographics and behavior, but my work is more interested in people’s cultural worldviews and values. Different interpretations of the same information can reinforce or threaten values, and knowing how that will take place can make it possible to avoid the latter and encourage the former.

It also begs the question, can we create different scientific messages for different groups of people? Probably, but that’s not my goal, for two main reasons:

  1. Creating multiple targeted versions of a particular communication artifact isn’t all that feasible for the organizations that ultimately do the communicating. I might gain some understanding by creating several different artifacts targeted at different types of people, but at the end of the project if I want to provide some type of actionable recommendations, I doubt one that says “make five versions of this and find a way to selectively share it with only X people” will be economically or politically doable for science journalists, communication organizations or the scientific community in general.
  2. The more important reason that a unified message (or ecosystem of design solutions, which I’ll get to later), is a better solution is that anything less will be perceived as duplicitous and jeopardize the integrity of those communicating about science. I’m interested in making scientific fact more compelling, but not spinning it so far away from the source that each ‘version’ looks different from another. Even for organizations that may have the resources to create intricately targeted messages and distribute them accordingly, the public will quickly become aware of this effort and question anything being communicated. It’s important to recognize that the content is still king here; the information is the same regardless of how we phrase it or illustrate it, or the tone in which we share it. And that must remain priority #1 or the rest of the effort will be in vain.


Which brings me to the final bullet.

I have been referring to this project as “human centered design” applied to the problem of science communication. Human centered design means a lot of different things to to a lot of different people, and it may be splitting semantic hairs or it may be a very valid point to make that my process has ended up looking very different from what many would recognize as the set of methods and tools usually applied in human centered design. If we’re defining human centered design as a very specific design process, beginning with immersive ethnographic research that draws out people’s needs and setting those needs as the foundation for design solutions, I acknowledge my process has not followed that textbook approach. Rather than beginning with a number of interviews and contextual inquiry to discover what my potential users would need, I looked instead to the work of those who have already done great research in just that manner. Why reinvent the wheel? Indeed, the work of so many in social psychology, sociology, risk perception and communication have already drawn out many of the insights I imagine a thorough design ethnography would. But, I must also admit that I have not steered my work by the compass of user needs in the human centered design tradition- that is, if we define the user as the general public audience. However, I might argue that the user in my case may be better defined as science communicators, and I have let their needs drive my process. It is certainly worth admitting (and perhaps making more prescient now that I’ve reflected on how this process has unfolded), that what I’m doing may not be human centered design as a design academic might define it, but in the wider (non-design, non-academic) world, the concept of audience or people based design is still relatively new and different… and as a philosophy, it’s what I’m doing.

Despite some suggestion that I should drop the term, I still like the human centered terminology for use with non-designers. It drives home the point that I’m centering these communication strategies around the very people the message is designed for- not necessarily to meet their unmet needs but certainly to make the information more meaningful and persuasive to them.

But I must consider the feedback, so, I ask: if this isn’t human centered design, what is it? It’s definitely a rhetorical approach to science communication. But I need a snappier title for it than that. Maybe something that still includes the word design…? Maybe this is communication centered design rather than human centered design? Not unlike the difference between teacher centered learning and student centered learning… both imply a deliberate design and both are human centered, but one puts the audience at the foundation of the design process and the other puts the designer in that role. I would argue that my work is not designer-led or designer-centered design. But I’m open to opposing views if you care to share them.

Maybe I should just define it as Francis Bacon did:

Rhetoric is the application of reason to imagination for the better moving of the will.

So, what am I doing, if not human centered design? Who knows. But it warrants some serious thought as I move into the second half of this project, and is probably the most pressing high-level question I’ll have to answer before the end.


Going forward, some of the suggestions I received will carry forward as I ask:

  1. Who is this for? Who is the user? Who will be communicating in an ideal world with my ideally designed strategies? I know it’s not scientists themselves, (though they certainly have a role to play), but rather those who communicate on their behalf. However, I’ll need to better define whether its a role that exists, needs adjustment, or has yet to exist in the capacity required to put this design process to work in science communication.
  2. Can the strategies I am evaluating be used to prevent bias, rather than just debias after the fact? There is some suggestion that this may be possible. There are some studies with promising results and suggestions that sound like great design potential. I’ve made some points about the user and the end goal, to make the truth “more compelling” than the lies and manufactured controversies; I plan to explore some possibilities for heading off challenges to that goal at the pass.
  3. How might my work be executed as an ‘ecosystem’ rather than a singular piece or communication artifact? I have by no means expected a single piece to represent a sort of panacea to any particular topic of denial or controversy. I am using a single communication piece as my first prototype only as a vehicle to apply and evaulate certain strategies- to assess the strategies themselves, but not the role of that communication piece as a singular object. Certainly, successful efforts to make scientific communication more compelling and meaningful will imply mutlimodal campaigns of much wider scope that I can truly cover in one year, but I’d like to explore some of the potential design opportunities nonetheless.