Thursday, November 7, 2013

5 Tips for Communicating Technical Information: iPad Pilot

Photo of the author, Alan Greilsamer
Posted by: Alan Greilsamer, Communications Specialist, Department of Veterans Affairs, supporting the Connected Health office, November 7, 2013.


"The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug." — Mark Twain

It’s simple—you’re the technical expert; you know the topic inside out, so of course you can easily explain it to a captive audience. Right? Not always.

Communicators in every industry know that message development matters. External audiences, internal audiences and stakeholders of all kinds need clear information about your services, benefits and products.

However, government communicators can have an added challenge. Internal and external stakeholders with varying degrees of technical expertise often weigh in to review messages and provide input. It’s essential for you, as the professional communicator, to coach your team to focus on the value of the technology, rather than the technology itself, when it comes to messaging.

Photo of a seated person using an iPad that's propped up on a cat sitting on the person's lap
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Veronica Belmont, CC BY 2.0
This summer, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provided iPads to 1,000 family caregivers of post 9-11 veterans as part of the year-long VA Mobile Health Pilot that will test 10 mobile apps designed to help caregivers manage stress and the health and well-being of the veterans they assist.

A critical part of the pilot phase has been ensuring that all of the participants understand how to use the technologies they are helping to test. This can be a challenge as participants come from all walks of life—from individuals who have never used a mobile device to those who are tech-savvy.

As the communications lead on the project, I learned five valuable lessons in communicating technical information to a largely nontechnical audience:
The left column lists the options Summary, Contact Information, Medical Diagnoses, Allergies, Medications, Surgeries, and Upcoming Appointments. The Summary option is selected, and the remainder of the screen displays Medical Diagnoses (Upper Respiratory Infection Acute, Accident Caused By Earth Movi..., Ankle Joint Pain), Allergies (Bee pollen, Peanut, Penicillin, Penicillin), and Medications (Active and Recently Expired) (Abarelix, Abarelix). The screen is cut off but it clear that a user could swipe down to display additional information.
The VA Mobile Health Summary of Care app allows veterans and their caregivers to receive and view VA medical information.

  1. Be sure you can articulate your communications goals. We continuously go back to answer the question “What are we trying to accomplish?” It is a balancing act of trying to keep our internal team focused on the big picture communication goals while keeping the technical details in plain English to be understood by our nontechnical audiences. The critical piece is keeping conversations about communications focused on the big picture rather than getting stuck in the weeds regarding the technology’s functionality. Being comfortable with our communications end-goal allows us to keep everyone internally on the same page. 
  2. Know your audience. We don’t mean identifying stakeholders. We mean…Know Them! What makes them tick! Understand their comfort level with technology. How do they prefer to receive news and information, when is the best time to communicate with them and why are they involved with your program? At VA, we work directly with our Caregiver Support team, which is responsible for knowing our caregivers and their needs. They have helped us identify tone, style and frequency of the messages being disseminated to our caregivers and other audiences.
  3. The screen displays a header, Care4Caregivers, and five options in large boxes (Learn, Self Assessment, Manage, Find Support, and Launchpad). Below in smaller boxes are five additional options available for selection (Care4Caregiver, Learn, Assess, Manage, Support).
    The VA Mobile Health Care4Caregiver app helps caregivers track stress, provides stress coping tips, and links them to resources.
    Structure your messages. Some communicators use message maps and others use message boxes.  We structured messages in buckets so we could address our internal and external stakeholders. Our buckets include Vision, Value, Need to Know, and Calls to Action. This approach allows us to work from the same template and, as new apps are developed, think through—What is most valuable to veterans and their caregivers as well as health care teams.
  4. What’s in it for me. Sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of the larger goal amidst the arduous vetting and approvals of what we as communicators do in the federal government. Making sure that every message is associated with a value to veterans, caregivers or clinicians helped us focus on the essential components.
  5. Be responsive. Ours was a pilot program and issues pop up. As they do, we work with our IT team to minimize the impact. We inform our help desk, update our website and develop easy-to-understand communications translating the current IT challenges and providing solutions as they are available.

Alan Greilsamer tweets about VA, mHealth, innovation, communications, his family and the Fightin’ Blue Hens at @alanjay724.

This discussion is brought to you by the Federal Communicators Network. FCN members are government employees managing U.S. government communications. We've published lots more on this topic. Check out Making Mobile Gov: User Experience Recommendations.