What is the content of your message, your product? How do you decide what you’re going to say, and how you’re going to say it?
Offering information alone isn’t enough to create change or influence action, as many a systems-change project has learned. Mindfully crafting the content you’ll disseminate is crucial to getting the content past the hands of your users and into their minds and actions.
This page focuses on how to approach crafting your content so that it is used, and that it makes some kind of difference—the kind you’d like to see.
Designing with Your Users in Mind
Crafting your content helps you reach the bottom line of dissemination: utilization. With that end in mind, consider asking these questions when you’re deciding how to craft content for your users.
What resources, knowledge, and information are needed by your intended users to understand and apply your message?
Is the reading level of your info analyzed and matched to the characteristics of your intended user groups?
Does the content of your info match the expressed info needs of the intended user groups?
Does your content include “real world” examples and illustrations that communicate to non-technical user group(s)?
Is your content reviewed through a quality control mechanism to assure accuracy and relevance?
Has your user group(s) been involved in developing content and in field-testing, reviewing, and revising your project info?
Is your info available in languages that are dominant among your intended user group(s)?
Clearly, crafting your content is extremely user-focused. You’re aiming to make the information and guidance you provide:
- accessible to your target audience, given their use of technology or their disability-related needs;
- useful to your audience;
- relevant to their needs and concerns;
- easy to understand, given your target users’ reading ability, dominant language, and prior knowledge of your topic; and
- sensitive to cultural issues, beliefs, and backgrounds.
This list dovetails nicely with the requirements of GPRA, doesn’t it? GPRA is the Government Performance and Results Act, enacted to improve the government’s ability to measure results of its programs. GPRA requires OSEP to respond to four performance measures:
- ensuring their work is of high quality;
- ensuring relevance of the work;
- ensuring the usefulness of the work; and
- ensuring the cost of technical assistance per unit.
All OSEP-funded centers are required to address these measures in their work. That includes the TA&D network. So it can only be beneficial to us all to design our content with the measures of relevance, usefulness, and quality in mind. And it will sure be beneficial to our users!
Designing for Accessibility
Our products and services must be designed so that they are accessible to as many people as possible. It’s the law (see, for example, Section 508), but more than that, it makes great good sense. Why put barriers in people’s way?
Consider just three examples of barriers that would be far easier to eliminate at the planning stage than as part of after-the-fact clean-up.
- stair entrances to buildings (they block people who use wheelchairs, walkers, or strollers; they cause hardship to anyone with a mobility impairment due to age, injury, or disability);
- graphic-heavy websites (these are a nightmare to anyone with a slow Internet connection or older equipment; they’ll think twice before they click on anything!);
- printed materials only (what about those who can’t read, can’t see, can’t hold or manipulate pages, or have a print disability?).
Making products and services accessible is strongly tied to principles of universal design, where we build environments, materials, and services so that they are barrier-free. Planning ahead and understanding the principles of universal design are key to creating accessible products or services. With foresight, with careful planning and design, we can eliminate many artificial barriers and, instead, open the benefits of our information and knowledge to as many people as possible.
Designing for Usefulness
What makes something useful? There are two noteworthy dimensions to think about:
- what something would be used for, and
- who‘s going to use it.
As disseminators, we’re inevitably trying to get some message out to people. Information that we think is valuable and important to know. That we think our users should know. That our users want to know.
What do we want our users to do with the info we’re sharing? Simply know it? Or take some sort of action, such as contacting an expert (us, perhaps!), asking for a meeting, or finding assistance in the community or school? Our dissemination efforts will be much more powerful if we have use in mind when we create a product or a service.
People tend to come to info with a purpose in mind, even if they can’t state clearly what their purpose is. They’re trying to solve a problem or answer a question. Write to that purpose. Be clear how your product can be used to address a problem or concern. Your product’s usefulness will greatly increase as a result.
Designing for Relevance
Relevance is closely tied to usefulness, but it’s not the same thing. To appreciate the distinctions between the two, consider whether something that’s not relevant to you or your concerns is useful to you in any significant way. It’s not. If something’s not relevant to you, you have no use to put it to or reason to try. You move on to other things.
On the other hand, we’ve all seen a product that’s very relevant to our lives and concerns, but we can’t figure out how to use it, apply it, integrate it into our lives or actions. For example, how about your standard user manual that explains how to connect your TV to a surround sound system, DVD player, cable, TiVo, or other piece of electronics? Very relevant to most of us at some time! But all too often, not very useful…could you follow the directions?
The best way to learn what’s relevant to your target audiences is to ask them. Involve them from the very beginning. They’ll tell you what’s relevant, what they need. They’ll also tell you how you can make a relevant product useful as well. Do you think those user manuals we mentioned went through a round of user testing before final printing? Bet not. At least not enough.
Designing for Easy Understanding
The average reading level of an adult in the United States is between the 6th and the 8th grade. Millions can’t read at all or have genuine difficulty. This reality means that we have to communicate simply and clearly, using everyday language as best we can and explaining new terms or jargon. People find examples helpful, and concrete steps plainly stated.
More will be said about crafting materials in plain language in these resource pages. It’s a important topic and an important skill for disseminators to have. For a quick read on the subject and lots of useful advice, try our Tipsheet on Writing Plainly.
Designing with Cultural Competence
In the words of Wikipedia, cultural competence refers to “an ability to interact effectively with people of different cultures.” There are four components to cultural competence:
- Awareness of one’s own cultural worldview;
- Attitude towards cultural differences;
- Knowledge of different cultural practices and worldviews; and
- Cross-cultural skills.
Developing cultural competence leads to the ability to understand, communicate with, and interact effectively with people across cultures.
The discussions and tools at the National Center for Cultural Competence (NCCC) resonate with our work as information providers in the disability field. Consider these statements, listed as “culturally competent guiding values and principles”:
- Cultural competence is achieved by identifying and understanding the needs and help-seeking behaviors of individuals and families.
- Culturally competent organizations design and implement services that are tailored or matched to the unique needs of individuals, children, families, organizations and communities served.
- Practice is driven in service delivery systems by client-preferred choices, not by culturally blind or culturally free interventions.
There are several compelling reasons to concern ourselves with the cultural competency of our products and services. Perhaps two of the most primary are:
- responding to the current and projected demographics in the United States (for example, did you know that 47 million people speak a language other than English at home?);
- eliminating the disparities in the health care that African Americans, Latino/Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Alaskan Natives, and Pacific Islanders receive, as compared with the U.S. population as a whole. (NCCC, 2003)
DuPraw and Axner (n.d.) identify six fundamental ways in which cultures tend to vary:
- communication styles (including language use, non-verbal expression, sense of time, personal distance);
- attitudes toward conflict (e.g., is it OK to be direct in a conflict?);
- approaches to completing tasks (e.g., how important is it to establish the personal relationship early in a collaboration?);
- decision-making styles (e.g., Is authority delegated or kept to one’s self? Are decisions reached by majority rule or by consensus building?);
- attitudes toward disclosure (e.g., is it appropriate to be frank about emotions or ask about personal matters);
- approaches to knowing (e.g., analytic, scientific method, or affective, intuitive). 
This resource page has touched upon key elements of design to consider as you are crafting the content of your message. You’d like to reach the widest audience possible, and have users actually use what you’ve created and shared. Being mindful of the key elements discussed here—which all add up to designing with your user in strong focus—will help you do that.
1 | Ryan, F. (n.d.). Cultural competency and co-occurring disorders. Retrieved January 2011 from slideshare.net: http://www.slideshare.net/Fjohnryan/cultural-compentency-and-cooccurring-disorders
2 | DuPraw, M.E., & Axner, M. (n.d.). Working on common cross-cultural communication challenges. Retrieved from the PBS website: http://www.pbs.org/ampu/crosscult.html
Keep Reading about Dissemination
- We’re All Disseminators: Why This Info is Relevant to You
- The Dissemination Research Base
- Element 1 of Effective Dissemination: Involve Your Intended Users
- Element 2: Involve Dissemination Sources
- Element 3: Mindfully Craft Your Content (you’re already here)
- Element 4: Disseminate Through Different Media
- Tipsheet: Writing Plainly
- Writing for the Web