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Lessons on readability and bias — Reflections from the UCD Gathering conference

Back in October, I had the opportunity to attend the UCD Gathering conference, a new virtual event for practitioners of user-centred design in all its forms.

UCD Gathering website

This is the first of two blog posts reflecting on what I learned at the conference. The second blog post will be published next week.

I will also present about the conference at next week’s Web Publishers’ Community, at 3pm on Thursday 29 April 2021.

Book your place at the Web Publishers’ Community (University login required)

Showcasing our research into staff and students’ needs around accessing course materials digitally

At UCD Gathering, I had the opportunity to present about our service design approach to improving student experience, showcasing our collaboration with the Learn Foundations project.

Blog post: A service design approach to Learn Foundations

The presentation was brought up to date with an explanation of how our work has helped Schools move their teaching to a hybrid model in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

User experience activities with the Learn Foundations project are being taken forward by Emma Horrell. Read her blog posts to find out how user research is continuing to help the University understand how we can best meet staff and student needs in our current hybrid learning context.

Latest blog posts about Learn Foundations

Three themes from ten talks

But better still than presenting about our work, was the opportunity to attend sessions from a wide variety of leading user-centred design practitioners.

UCD Gathering acted as a virtual amalgamation of a number of separate physical conferences, including UX Scotland and Service Design in Government, which we have regularly attended over recent years.

Despite the virtual setting being new territory for everyone concerned, UCD Gathering had the same high quality of thought-provoking sessions that we have come to expect from the organisers.

I will highlight ten useful sessions around three themes:

  • Being aware of bias, and other cognitive considerations
  • Improving readability of content
  • Showing the business impact of human-centred approaches

This first blog post covers the bias and content themes. The talks about impact will be covered in next week’s blog post.

Being aware of bias, and other cognitive considerations

Rebellious creativity — What kids have taught me about designing experiences

This session from Laura Yarrow was of particular interest to me, given that at the time I was anticipating the imminent birth of my daughter!

Adults are at the mercy of social judgement. So there are big differences between what kids and adults produce. Kids’ brains are better than adults’ brains for creativity.

If you set adults a creative task, they are constantly jockeying for power in a group. They are riddled with uncertainty, hesitation, inefficiency, and competition. Adults are preoccupied with status management.

Conversely, kids aren’t afraid to look stupid. They aren’t afraid to ask the right questions.

But education and business tends to reward quick answers over imaginative inquiry. Often, questioning is barely tolerated. This is why so often people start with solutions.

You might have heard about the five whys, the idea that if you keep asking “why” something is the way it is, you eventually get to the root cause of the problem. But kids don’t have five whys. They have 5,000 whys!

Adults also suffer from a sort of cognitive presenteeism. We believe we need to think really hard. But our best ideas often come when we let our minds wander — in the shower, on a run, or doing anything apart from thinking hard about it! Procrastination is a vice for productivity, but a virtue for creativity.

Kids are also more inclusive. They include people who are different. They don’t get stuck using just one tool or method. They avoid groupthink.

Finally, we should aim for volume, then quality. Mozart had over 600 pieces, and Edison had over 1,000 patents — but you only know a few of each.

Design for cognitive bias: Using mental shortcuts for good instead of evil

David Dylan Thomas is an expert on cognitive bias. There are over 100 biases. Knowing about these is important to making good design decisions.

But it’s useful to note that biases aren’t inherently bad. In fact, they are a crucial set of shortcuts that help us get through the day. If we were to remove our biases, we would never get anything done. But that mechanism sometimes gets things wrong, which makes us cause harm.

He showed how this has an impact on how we design our content. One bias is cognitive fluency. This is when if something looks easy to read, we assume it’s going to be easy to do.

For example, a densely-packed recipe may make it look difficult to make pancakes. But using big images and small snippets of text makes it look easier.

We like things that are easier to process.

If something is easier to read, we think it’s more true.

If something rhymes, we think it’s more true.

We can think creatively about how we can inform readers how much stock they should put into a piece of information. For example, if something is a rumour, make it harder to read. Make facts easier to read.

David Dylan Thomas’s points about how bias informs our content design brings us neatly onto the next theme I want to highlight from the conference.

Making our content more readable

Helping users feel valued and supported

NHS Digital’s Sara Wilcox presented a practical but powerful session about the importance of “creating respectful, caring content” for people seeking healthcare advice.

She noted that some people have an anxiety that digital will remove human contact, removing the humanity in healthcare that people value so much. But the purpose of technology is to extend humanity, not replace it.

Her advice on creating accessible content in a healthcare context was striking.

NHS Digital’s content style guide advises that you should use words like pee and poo — because more people understand those words than urine and stools.

This attracts complaints from people who see it as dumbing down. But these complaints are not representative. In actual testing, NHS Digital have found that people appreciate the clear and direct language that everyone can understand.

Pee and poo and the language of health — blog post by Sara Wilcox for NHS Digital

Sara Wilcox also noted that we should be wary of using reading ages as a way of measuring the readability of content. It is possible to write gibberish and still get a decent readability score.

Reading ages are in fact meaningless for adults. The reading age methodology is based on research from the 1940s on Australian childrens’ vocabulary. It’s not very relevant for adults in the 2020s, and it only measures vocabulary, not actual readability.

This was the subject of an episode of the BBC Radio 4 programme More or Less. Hear the discussion from 20 minutes onwards.

More or Less — 7 February 2020

The most overlooked U-word in user experience: Understanding

Readability scores were also tackled by Candi Williams.

She noted that reading age scores are not an indicator of intelligence. Our reading ability can change based on our situation and emotional state. It’s really about speed and comprehension.

But she said that readability tests are a good way of checking ourselves and finding improvements.

It’s useful to consider that the age of 9 marks a significant milestone in our reading development. At this stage, we stop just reading, and we begin understanding. We begin to understand meaning, reading between the lines to pick up on things like irony and tone. With 9 year olds, you can begin to cover up words, and they are able to accurately guess the missing content.

This led us to some readability tests I hadn’t come across before.

The cloze test asks users to fill in the gaps from every 6th word. If people get 60% of the blanks right, it shows a good understanding of the meaning.

Interestingly, we can use this to understand what language people use to fill the blanks. So if you want to know whether you should say ordinary v normal, or cashpoint v cash machine, you can use a cloze test.

Another is the highlighter test, where you ask people to highlight which parts are clear, and which could be clearer.


In summary:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions
  • Do the hard work to avoid harm
  • Do the hard work to make content easy to read

Find out more

Book your place at Web Publishers’ Community (University login required) where I will present more reflections from UCD Gathering.

The second blog post, about demonstrating the impact of human-centred approaches, will be published next week.

Join the human-centred network

More than 100 people are now in our supportive community of practice on Microsoft Teams. Join the conversation with colleagues from a variety of disciplines across the University to discuss how we can all make our decision-making more human-centred.

Join the human-centred network

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