Design for Health: Making Science Accessible

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For health organizations, federal agencies and nonprofits alike, it's a challenge to get anyone to pay attention long enough to hear your prevention messages, much less to actually change their behavior as a result. It's even harder with kids. It's not that they don't care about science; quite the contrary, they love it - especially if it's gross. It's more that they don't want to hear an authority figure talking down to them about the parade of terribles that will befall them if they binge drink, have unprotected sex, etc. Be honest: can you think back to your high school health classes without involuntarily rolling your eyes and feeling awkward? If you have kids of your own, how do they react when you broach these subjects?

Health organizations, of course, don't want to send messages that could possibly be construed as tolerating risky or unhealthy behavior. So they often inject a strong "NO NO NO" slant into their communications - precisely the messages that turn anti-authoritarian kids off. It's a bit of a Catch-22. Furthermore, health info often isn't even posted in places where kids will encounter it: they don't even see it, much less roll their eyes at it; if they did see it, it's so stodgily designed, they won't even look twice. Government has been one of the worst offenders: as much as I value publicly funded science agencies like NIH, health science is only useful if it's made public in a usable form, and tech/communications savviness is not a traditional function of government.

A number of agencies, though, are pushing to do better. For example, NIDA (the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of NIH) has been trying various interactive health education strategies (the annual Drug Facts Chat Day; the Sara Bellum Blog). Of course these efforts aren't perfect - there is occasional eye-roll-inducing cheesiness - but they're in good faith: they try to strike a balance between plain language and scientific accuracy, between user interests and public health priorities (what kids want to know isn't always what epidemiologists think is most important to tell them). It is incredibly hard to achieve this balance. I speak from experience: I spent two years at NIDA working on science communication issues. So despite the cheesiness, I'm incredibly proud of the ways NIDA has leveraged design and interactivity to de-stodgify health facts and make the basics of addiction science more accessible.

This week, NIDA is hosting a big web push to get evidence-based information on drugs to youth audiences. Check out the drug abuse IQ quiz here (I'm embarrassed to say I was tricked and did not get all the questions right! Ouch!) The image at the top of this post is from one of their new brochures, which is remarkably well-designed for a government publication. The (young) designer, Christian Cabrera, actually talked to a focus group of high school students and got their feedback during the design process. Seriously: the government listened and did audience-directed design. I am so proud!

Anyway, if you think they're useful, please use NIDA's resources in your science education, health counseling, and advocacy work, and mention them to others. Dataviz wonks who think you can do better: I'm sure you can! Rip the data from NIDA's website, or other government websites, and mash it up yourself. And if you have suggestions for how NIDA could improve its science education and communication, particularly web communication, tell them. Thanks.

PS: Andrew Sullivan just discovered what an. . . interesting. . . read the NIDA Chat Day transcripts are. FYI, all the questions are real questions from high school students - I was there in previous years, and helped respond in real time. Note: you may not want to read if you are optimistic about public science and health literacy. . .

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