Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Death by leaflet: information overload

Information overload
I recently watched my mum, 84, struggle through a pile of printouts and leaflets to make sense of a forthcoming hospital appointment. (Don't worry - I helped her.) 

To prepare for the appointment, she needed to stop eating certain things and start taking medication at strict intervals.

Volume of information

What overwhelmed us was the sheer volume of information: 6 printouts, leaflets and letters totalling around 7,500 words. That's almost a dissertation's worth of important information.

And you're given the bunch of leaflets at a time when you're already stressed because you're ill. So it's harder to absorb information. 

Duplicate information

The information in some leaflets duplicated stuff in others. It was confusing: 
"Haven't I just read that somewhere else, or is it different?"  


Leaflets contradicted each other on food advice.  It’s either OK to drink milk in the run-up to your appointment or it’s not ("black tea only"). To clarify whether mum could have a proper cuppa, I phoned the helpline.


Ambiguity kept us on our toes: “Unless your doctor has advised otherwise, take the medication in 2 doses…” Our GP hasn't told us, so do we take the medication in 2 doses spread over 2 days or do we take it all the same day?

Tiny font

One of the leaflets had tiny writing. Font size 10 or 8. Squinting at tiny text when your eyesight is buggered* only added to the anxiety. (It was an instruction leaflet that came inside a pack of medication.)

Confusing graphics

One leaflet helpfully listed the foods it was OK to eat in the run-up to an appointment. But it used tiny graphics to depict the foods and the shapes were confusing.

“Is that a cloud? No, it’s a cupcake!”  

Litres or pints

The instructions on making up the medication (you had to add water to a powder) were in litres, so I converted them to pints as that’s the unit mum uses. When you're tired and ill, instructions that use an unfamiliar unit of measurement just add to the confusion.

Some good points too

I’m not criticising all NHS patient leaflets. It’s clear that a lot of work goes into making complicated information simple.

For us, the best leaflets presented information in a digestible format, using bullets and tables rather than long paragraphs. And we liked clear headings to help us skip irrelevant sections.

Personalised information

Ideally, you should never receive irrelevant information. If the NHS is moving from 'one size fits all' to 'personalised medicine', it's time to tailor information to individual patients. Create information in chunks that you can combine together for each individual.

Handwritten checklist

The way we coped with 7,500 words was to read everything then summarise into a single, handwritten checklist. To have everything on a single sheet of paper was a relief. We closed the leaflets, printouts and letters - no need to keep rechecking them.

NHS 4ever

By the way, I'm in no way criticising NHS staff. They were kind, caring, professional. 

I’m simply saying that with printed patient information, it's time to make it more usable. Let's provide a better user experience that matches the compassionate and efficient experience we got at the hospital.

UX starts earlier than you think

As usability/user experience guru Rolf Molich reminds us, user experience starts when you take a product out of its box or make an enquiry before purchasing. UX spans all customer 'touchpoints'. So in my situation, the user experience started with all the printouts we had to struggle through - things could have been so much smoother.

* technical term

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