I have worked as a freelance specialist in consumer health information for nine years (www.newsomdavis.co.uk). During this time I have worked with a wide range of people and organisations, including NHS Trusts, the Department of Health, private healthcare and pharmaceutical companies, as well as PiF and esteemed PiF members.
I started my career as a nurse and then switched to medical publishing at the Consumer Association’s Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin. There I worked with a team of people passionate about evidence-based information for clinicians and learnt the importance of accuracy, clarity and consensus. We also started taking articles for doctors and pharmacists and translating them into award-winning patient leaflets. It was then that I really developed my passion for the production of clear, accurate information for consumers. Crucially, I also learnt about the need to test every leaflet with users to ensure that the information told them what they want to know, and did it in a way that was easy to understand and act upon.
Initially my experience of ‘user-testing’ was commissioning and watching a crack team of market researchers to conduct focus groups. Their reports gave a fascinating insight into people’s behaviours and attitudes and we were able to alter our leaflets accordingly.
I developed my own user-testing skills when I moved to Consumation in 1997. Consumation specialises in information design and user-testing, particularly for regulated medicine leaflets. Here I really learnt the art of testing information: taking something I had written and helped design and sitting face to face with a consumer and really seeing how they use a leaflet; where they stumble and misunderstand; and what can be done to improve it.
I have been doing user-testing for many years now and still I learn every time. It acts as a reminder about how people really use information, and also how tiny differences to design and wording can be critical to making information usable. No matter how expert we become in information design, users will always still struggle with something and it is our job to make life as easy as possible for them.
Of course, we rarely get to produce information that isn’t constrained by space, content and design. User tests can be a powerful tool to force change, such as removing jargon or technical terms, introduce more space or pictures, or amend templates, colours and branding. It can also help prioritise – for example, when deciding whether to start a heading at the top of a column or introduce a bit more white ace.
User-testing has been developed and championed within the world of medicines information but I am delighted to see it becoming more recognised as a vital part of co-production in all fields of information design. More and more producers are asking me about the process and how they can begin to introduce it. It is time to start looking for ways to enable producers to test their information routinely, and embrace it as a hugely powerful and rewarding process. Meanwhile, we must be careful to maintain the integrity of the process and not to confuse it with other vital steps, such as user involvement.
PiF is playing a vital role in educating members about user-testing and the many other steps to creating information that works. In particular, I have been delighted to be involved in producing PiF’s new toolkit (https://www.pifonline.org.uk/toolkit/guidance/involving/) which will be a fantastic resource for us all.