Tuesday, November 29, 2011

NYC Pedestrians Take a Haiku

 In a long list of communications campaigns that the New York City Transit Authority has used to make Big Apple streets safer places, its newest campaign gets people like me - people who study how people make meaning from words and pictures, especially when it comes to public health and safety, really sittin' a while a pondering. 

Hundreds of these signs are going up in the pedestrians clear line of site. www.nyc.gov

DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan said: “We’re putting poetry into motion with public art to make New York City’s streets even safer. These signs complement our engineering and education efforts to create a steady rhythm for safer streets in all five boroughs.”

Let me say I am a fan of Haiku.  I often don't "understand" it.  But I'm drawn, almost stopped in my tracks, by its singular, lasting effect. 

To help myself know what I think about the campaign, minus any empirical evidence - hanging out on rainy street corners doing intercept interviews, running focus groups to copy test the readability of the ads, or luring folks into my usability lab to simulation test the signs - I've made a list of some linguistic and text theories that support the use of Haiku versus what theories & phenomenon that would not support using Haiku to communicate public safety.  

Haiku is short text - usually 3 lines / 17 syllable. 
She walks in beauty
Like the night. Maybe that’s why
Drivers can’t see her. (3rd grade level vocabulary)
High level words pose reading problems ( (50% of adults in US read at 8th grade level or lower. Example from one curbside Haiku sign: 
Too averse to risk
To chance the lottery, yet
Steps into traffic
("averse"- 10th gr level word) 
Haiku relies on phrases that paint a picture or capture a singular effect - often memorable.

Many people read literally unless they are specifically prompted not to.
 One of the powers of poetry and poetic language is that it makes the familiar “strange” and therefore we see the message with new eyes.  It makes an impact in the way ordinary language cannot.

 In this sign example below the overt use of the simile "like" cues the reader to be ready to make a comparison.  
The traffic rolling like waves.

Readers unaccustomed to reading poetic language can struggle with making meaning. If the language does not overtly cue the reader to read thinking comparison - simile, metaphor, comprehension is not likely.

In this curbside haiku there is no cue to tell the reader to read it as a comparison.
Car stops near bike lane
Cyclist entering raffle
Unwanted door prize

 Poetry plays with words: 
 Most people, regardless of their literacy level, play with words orally.

 They are much less likely to "get" the meaning of plays on words in print, especially plays on difficult words.
Cyclist writes screenplay
Plot features bike lane drama
How pedestrian

Feel free to add to this list.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs - his enduring lesson for me

Steve Jobs changed the world by understanding and having the rare genius to close the gap between scientists and common people.  He did this fearlessly by creating tools that expanded our lives and our vision of what was possible for us - tools that are intuitive and loved.

 He set the bar high for those of us working to close the chasms between scientists and health experts and the average person on the street.

I don't think it will ever be the same ....in my lifetime. I want to turn on all my apple things and let their LED lights and screens glow through the day and night.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

"This is My Laptop: The Digital Divide is SOOOO 90s

For the past two years we've been doing a study of how low income, under-educated and underserved inner city people are able to use and respond to patient electronic medical records.  At every turn from focus groups to one-on-one usability testing in our lab, we've been surprised and excited about their enthusiasm.  Probably nothing has surprised us more than the reality that 99% of our study population has cell phone, and more than 60% of them are smart phones!

"THIS IS MY LAPTOP"  study participants say to us. 


Many of our study participants seem to have leapfrogged over the laptop and home computer step in our digital evolution.  Their lives are happening on mobile. (witness how many times our usability sessions were interrupted by calls and text messages)
Are we ready to be relevant to this new reality?  What does health literacy mean in this new mobile landscape?

Current surveys  shows that 46% of non-Hispanic Blacks and 51% of English-speaking Hispanics use their cell phones for internet access.  This is compared to 33% non-Hispanic white Americans.
(PEW Internet & American Life study

More interesting findings about health related online use from the folks at NCI:
Chou, WS et al. 2009. Social Media Use in the US: Implications for health communication, JMIR, 1(4): e48.
Chou, WS et al. 2011. Health-related Internet Use among Cancer Survivors: Data from Health Information National Trends Survey, 2003-2008. J Cancer Survivorship.

 I'm reminded of the TV commercial for the kitchen faucet. 

This is my laptop.  Can you build a health communication system around it?

Friday, September 23, 2011

Improving the usability of Federal Websites

From now until Sept 30th you can weigh in on what .gov can do to make all Federal websites the best, most useful they can be.
I'm contributing, and I hope you will too.

Visit Help Create the .gov you deserve

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Simplicity Complex

To follow up on my recent post questioning some of the basic premises of the simplification movement I would love to hear your thoughts about my most recent article,  "The simplicity complex: exploring simplified health messages in a complex world"  Health Promotion International Volume 26, Issue 3, Pp.338-350.




A challenge in individual and public health at the start of the 21st century is to effectively communicate health and science information about disease and complex emergencies. The low health literacy of millions of adults in the USA has been referred to as a ‘silent killer’. A popular approach to improving health communication and health promotion to low health literate consumers has been to simplify the language of health information. The expected result has been that individuals and groups will better understand information and will then make informed decisions about their health and behaviors. This expectation has grown to include the belief that the public will be better prepared to take appropriate action in complex natural and man-made emergencies. Demonstrating the efficacy of this approach remains, in large part, uninvestigated. And it is becoming more evident that health literacy itself is complex and multifaceted. This article applies linguistic and sociolinguistic models in order to better articulate the role of simplification in health communication and health promotion. Focusing on two models from sociolinguistics—pragmatics and text theory—the article discusses their usefulness in rethinking message simplification. The discussion proposes that a richer, more theory-based understanding of text structures and functions, along with other powerful constructs, including cultural appropriateness, relevancy and context, are needed to close the gaps between health messages, health messengers and patients/the public. The article concludes by making recommendations for future study to empirically test the strengths and limitations of these models and constructs.

Do you have examples of complex health or science information that doesn't seem to easily translate into simple language?

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and examples.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Health Literacy at Work in New York City - Targeting Adult Obesity

I and colleagues at the New York City Dept. of Health are now writing about our research and public outreach development targeting obesity in the city.