Researcher, Teacher, Consultant: A Conversation with Karen Schriver

By Alan Houser | Fellow

I first met Dr. Karen Schriver in Pittsburgh, PA, where she was a professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University. I had the privilege of taking one of Karen’s classes, “Integrating Visual and Verbal Text,” while a student at Carnegie Mellon University in the Master of Arts in Professional Writing program.

Karen taught me the importance of document design, readability, legibility, audience analysis, and user testing. Karen’s influence continues to inform my career. More importantly, Karen has helped hundreds of organizations improve their documents, and millions of people have benefited from her work.

Karen is a researcher and consultant in information design and clear communication, and the author of hundreds of research articles and book contributions. She may be best known for her book, Dynamics in Document Design: Creating Text for Readers. Published in 1997, Dynamics in Document Design is in its 9th printing, and has earned its place in the technical communication canon. Karen is president of KSA Communication Design and Research, and continues to be one of the most influential members of our profession. Recently, Karen and I met at her home near Pittsburgh for an engaging discussion about her work and her career. What follows is an excerpt from that conversation.

Alan Houser: I’m Alan Houser and I’m sitting here with Karen Schriver, and am thrilled to have her as one of the featured people in this edition of STC Intercom.

So, Karen, one of the fascinating things about you is your work, and especially Dynamics in Document Design. I continue to see references to Dynamics in Document Design in the STC journal and Intercom. So I’ve been very impressed by its longevity.

Typing “Karen Schriver” into Google Scholar yields 8,000 results. Do you track your citations?

Karen Schriver: I look at them every so often, in Google Scholar and ResearchGate. It’s really just been recently, though, because I didn’t even know that they were tracking them and sometimes will have many more hits than another, and you wonder … Were they recent? When did they happen? But interestingly Google Scholar will let you dig down into the details and tell you who cited you, where they cited you, even what page and what the context is.

ResearchGate is a more recent website that a lot of academic researchers are on. What’s nice about it, unlike Google Scholar, is that it allows the researcher to put up full papers on their website and allows people to download them straight from the site. And so you can track not only who is seeing you? What country are they from? What else are they looking at? What do they seem to be attracted to? And it allows you to promote certain articles or books that you might have … You’re allowed to pick your top five … And it shows those as a kind of advertisement for your work. And then have keywords.

It’s fun to change it up to see what people are attracted to.

For example: I wrote an article about a year or so ago for a new book about information design. It’s called Information Design as Principled Practice, edited by Jorge Frascara. He’s an Argentinian, a famous graphic designer, information designer. He brought together a bunch of people to write articles in English, that he then translated to Spanish and then wrote the book entirely in Spanish for the Spanish and South American markets. And then the publisher turned out to be not very supportive of promoting the book.

So he then took the book and moved it to the U.S. and had everybody do some minor revisions and then put it out again as an English book. And now it seems to be really taking off.

He let the authors keep their own copyright to their articles, so I had mine and I put it up on ResearchGate, and it was very strange, because the first month I had it up, I only had about 30 hits on it, but as time went on, I was getting more and more. Within another month I had a thousand, then I had two thousand, and I was like, “Where are all these people coming from and why would they be interested in this article?”

It was called “The Rhetoric of Redesign in Bureaucratic Settings.” And it turns out that a lot of people want to know about that. In it, I recounted a project I had done for the the Department of Transportation of a major U.S. city, redesigning a bunch of forms for them and the struggles that I went through in trying to get the revisions published.

In the end, it turned out that the legal team at this department said that they didn’t want a plain language version. That they thought they could do a better job at it.

Alan: Even in publicly facing information?

Karen: Yes, it was horrifying. Because I had all of the people within the organization be very supportive. They had given me feedback. We had no money to test [with external subjects], so we tested it out on everybody within the organization.

Everyone was on board, and I got people saying, “Wow, is this really something that was designed by the Department of Transportation? We can’t even believe it.” And then the legal team put a big kabosh on it, and said, No, we’re not putting that out because we didn’t do it. Our fingerprints aren’t on it. And ‘We don’t like all of this plain-ness.’” And so unfortunately they still have the same lousy documents.

But the moral of the story is that ResearchGate allowed this article that would have been buried, because it’s in an edited collection. Many edited collections never see the light of day in terms of big readership. So it was an opportunity for me to get it out. I get lots of feedback on it, I get lots of people saying, “Oh, those people, they really should have taken your advice.” Because it was good work, and how could they act like that?

Alan: Why isn’t plain language something that everybody just gets behind? I see a lot of organizational resistance to it. You mentioned the anecdote earlier that demonstrates this. What are your thoughts?

Karen: In 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Plain Writing Act. When he did that, he basically set a mandate, an unfunded mandate as they like to say in Washington, that all agencies and federal government bureaus and departments must comply with the Plain Writing Act.

Those of us who tried to get that legislation passed were part of this group called the Center for Plain Language, a non-profit located in Washington, DC, and we’ve been working on these issues for over 15 years.

We were trying to get President Obama to sign it. We wanted it to say “Plain Language Act.” When we say “plain language,” we mean writing and visual design. But the [U.S. Federal Government] thought it would be much too hard to get design in the mix, because they thought that design was fuzzy and vague, and that language couldn’t mean everything. So they reduced it to writing. Then they reduced it further to a set of quick guidelines. Use active voice. Don’t have too many words. User personal pronouns. And there’s nothing wrong with this advice. It’s fine, it’s just that it doesn’t go far enough. And it makes it seem as though that’s all there is to taking a plain language approach.

The big problem has been that government agencies are really vested in maintaining things as they’ve been. They don’t want changes. They don’t want to revise. And they sometimes need to be dragged kicking and screaming to make any changes.

But fortunately, there have been a core group of plain language advocates who are within government. They’re another group that calls themselves PLAIN (www.plainlanguage.gov). Many of its members are the actual Federal Government employees who work in the Federal Aviation Administration or the Department of Defense or Homeland Security or the Department of Justice. And they are very serious about implementing plain language.

Alan: So how can we motivate otherwise reticent organizations to embrace plain language?

Karen: The way we have gotten this unfunded mandate to work is by humiliation.

And it actually has been quite successful. One of the things the Center for Plain Language has done is to create something called the Federal Plain Language Report Card. And so we grade the different agencies on how well they have been implementing the plain language legislation.

We grade them just like you would in grade school, on a scale of A to F. We have given Fs. And as you can imagine, nobody likes to get an F. And when we do this, the Washington Post snaps it up and runs with the story and puts up a picture of our report card and suddenly people are making calls. “Well, what about this plain language? Maybe we’ll reconsider. It could be a good thing. Why don’t you send somebody over here and give us some training?”

And then one thing leads to another. Some of the organizations like the [U.S. Department of Justice] have turned this ship around. The [U.S. Veterans Administration] has been working hard to create their documents in ways that the veterans can understand. Compliance rates are going up. They’ve got people who have the proof that shows that Veterans seem to be more pleased with the stuff they are getting.

Alan: What do you see next for the Plain Language movement?

Karen: Our next attack is plain language regulations. Whether you’re a small business or a large business, you have to deal with regulations. Our position is much like Al Gore’s, who said that Plain Language is a civil right. By that, he meant that we have a right to understand things that are obligated to us; that the government is asking us to do.

So if the government is asking me to provide workers’ compensation insurance for my employees, for example, I need to understand what that law is. I shouldn’t have to hire a lawyer to understand what the workers’ compensation regulation is. Similarly, if you’re a big company, you shouldn’t have to hire a team of lawyers to understand what the regulations are. And there’s a whole cadre of lawyers who of course don’t want plain language legislation, because that’s how they make their money.

So, it’s a nested problem, but I think that the peel of the orange is coming off. And I think that more and more people are recognizing that plain language is good business. It’s been primarily practitioners and government who are interested in plain language.

Alan: What about the private sector? Is there any hope? I’ll often encounter a credit card contract or a mortgage agreement, and have the realization that they don’t want me to understand [this document]. They have a business interest in making those contracts opaque. Is there any hope in changing those organizations?

Karen: The only way those organizations will change is if the competition changes. Fortunately, the competition is changing.

In the financial services industry, for example, a number of prominent information designers have been teaming up with some of the big firms. And they have been trying to persuade these folks that if you write a proxy statement that your shareholders can understand, that’s a win. It’s not being negative, it’s not something you should be embarrassed about. And guess what? You can advertise that.

I have found that, sometimes, that competition is the best way to get change to occur.

Alan: I’m struck by how timeless the book (Dynamics in Document Design) is. The principles of document design, the principles of typography, importance of and techniques for usability testing, all still relevant. I’m amazed at how well the book has stood the test of time. But, if you were writing the book today, how would you approach it?

Karen: If I were doing the book today, I would really have to focus more on online reading.

In this book, I mainly take the point-of-view of [readers] of paper documents. I dabble in the online world there, but it really hadn’t come into its own at that point. It was out there; certainly the Web had been around for quite a bit of time.

But what I would do if I had to do it over again would be … probably I wouldn’t write the same book, but I would write something that capitalized on one of the themes I tried to make clear in the book. That is, that people can really learn more from usability testing than just what to do with the document or the website at hand. And that they can actually benefit in the long term. And that the more you do testing, the more you are able to develop a mental model of a reader or a user or a stakeholder, and so probably what I would do is take examples that are current from today’s world, across platforms, across genres, and I would test theses, and I would have famous designers revise those.

And then I would try to make the book interactive by putting most of it on the Web, and having writers and designers look at an initial text that could be print, but probably would be more electronic, and to diagnose what they think a user or reader might do with that text and what problems they might have. And to have a forum for them to post problems, to note things they thought were good, note things they thought were bad, and have some kind of forum for sharing those ideas. And then, that they could have a kind of self-paced experienced where “OK, then you get to see some user protocols that were collected on that text. Or some feedback on preference, or some comprehension tests; whatever was available.” And then [the reader] could say, “Hmmm … here I was right, and here I missed that. Boy, I was really wrong about that.” Basically, to give them that sense of “Here’s where people really had difficulty.” And then to show a revision that was created by somebody who was theoretically pretty good at doing revisions. And for whatever, whether it was for a cell phone, or a video, or some multimedia platform, and then to have the reader see the whole process of seeing a text, evaluating a text, getting feedback on a text, seeing a revision, and then making comments about the revision. “If it were me, I would have done this. Or if it were me, I would have done that.” As we all know, there’s really no answer … there’s no perfect solution. But there are real problems that people will come up with, even with something that we think is great.

Alan: A dynamic community-based learning experience?

Karen: Yes, I think so.

Alan: And when can we expect that?

Karen: <Laughter> Well, actually, first I’m working on a book on information design and plain language guidelines. I promised people that I would do this … I’ve been working on this giant literature review over the past five years. It comes and it goes … I come back to it, and then I think “Oh no, what was I thinking? Was I trying to organize the whole world of text and graphics?” So I was trying to shake out the key pieces of advice that we can take away from this research, primarily from where I left off in Dynamics today. So we have close to 15-20 years of stuff that’s been out and there’s a lot of stuff that’s really good, and I’ve been kind of curious as to what form guidelines should take.

There are a lot of books that do something like that now, but they are mainly from a user interface perspective, and I thought maybe there’s room for a book that brings together writing and design, that brings together research and pulls out some of the highlights that we’ve learned from that work.

Alan: You have a tremendous amount and breadth of experience. How do you describe yourself in this profession? Researcher, consultant? You have a lot of stories about many different encounters with organizations.

Karen: As you know, I started out as a professor at Carnegie Mellon. When I was wearing that hat, I was doing both teaching and research, as well as practical projects on the side. We had an organization that you were part of: the Communications Design Center, where we could do practical projects for business and industry. So, very early on in my career I got a kind of appetite for all three: teaching, research, and consulting.

I was lucky to be immersed in all of that. It gave me a great launching pad for having options … and being able to pretty much call the shots in how I would like to carve out my career.

I started out with teaching and left to do my own company, KSA Communication Design and Research, which has been primarily a research and consulting company. So I would see myself today as both a researcher, a consultant, and as a teacher. It just depends on the day what I’m doing. I’ve always felt really comfortable moving back and forth between the academic and business environment.

Alan: It’s been a privilege to talk to you. You’ve shared many insightful stories and anecdotes and principles from your wonderful career.

Resources

Google Scholarhttps://scholar.google.com

ResearchGate https://www.researchgate.net

Center for Plain Language http://centerforplainlanguage.org

Federal Plain Language Report Card — http://centerforplainlanguage.org/report-cards/

Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN) — http://www.plainlanguage.gov

Plain Language Association InterNational (PLAIN) — http://plainlanguagenetwork.org

Dynamics in Document Design: Creating Text for Readers by Karen A. Schriver (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1997).

The rhetoric of redesign in bureaucratic settings — From Information Design as Principled Action: Making Information Accessible, Relevant, Understandable, and Usable, ed. Jorge Frascara (Champaign, IL: Common Ground, 2015).

Reading on the Web: Implications for online information design — From On Information Design, 2016, www.mao.si/News/E-book-On-Information-Design.aspx .

ALAN HOUSER (arh@nullgroupwellesley.com) is President of Group Wellesley, Inc., a Pittsburgh, PA-based company that provides authoring, content management, and workflow services to technology-oriented businesses. Alan is a distinguished consultant and trainer in the fields of XML technologies, authoring and publishing tools, and technical communication best practices. Alan is an STC Fellow and Society Past President.

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