In Christmas 2018, BMJ published the results of an astonishing experiment set up to establish if the use of a parachute had an impact on the likelihood of death when participants jumped out of an airplane.
Despite a regular sounding title “parachute use to prevent death and major trauma when jumping from aircraft: randomized controlled trial” and regular sounding (if somewhat apparently obvious) objective “to determine if using a parachute prevents death or major traumatic injury when jumping from an aircraft” there was nothing regular about the result summary “parachute use did not significantly reduce death or major injury (0% for parachute v 0% for control)” or the clarification “this finding was consistent across multiple subgroups.”
Mercifully the study’s conclusion offers some much–needed succor not just for parachute manufacturers but also for the laws of physics as we know them “parachute use did not reduce death or major traumatic injury when jumping from aircraft in the first randomized evaluation of this intervention. However, the trial was only able to enroll participants on small stationary aircraft on the ground, suggesting cautious extrapolation to high altitude jumps.”
The experiment was a justified protest by the scientific community at the consistently low quality with which the media report scientific findings. It turns out that it’s not just the Daily Mail that makes a daily effort to categorise the world of inanimate objects into those which either cause or cure cancer (or sometimes both, depending on how many stories about Princess Diana or immigration are live that week). The media coverage of BMJ’s January 2019 study on the impact of mobile phone use on the developmental health of children was consistently appallingly reported.
Once again though I would do well to look in the mirror on the way down from my high horse.
Because the industry within which I make my living is unfortunately no stranger to the unhelpful “catch all” headline with no regard for the nuance and detail below the headline which is absolutely essential in making digital effective.
In a sense UX agencies have an identical job to media outlets when it comes to reporting research. We need to understand the research, apply the research and explain the research in a non–technical way. Crucially however, we have the same responsibility and duty to be rigorous enough in our understanding of the science that we communicate nuanced facts and not generalised fiction.
Here are a few false truisms which I’ve heard trotted out down the years as universal principles or guidelines for digital activity.
“Blog content helps with SEO”
“Interface design needs to be mobile first”
“Site navigation needs to apply the three–click rule”
“Content is king”
“Users hate scrolling”
The challenge is that these bland generalisms are much easier to say and sell than the truth behind them.
“Fresh relevant thought–leading well–connected up–to–date blog content can help with search engine performance in some sectors.”
“Interface design needs to embrace the customer’s context of use so needs to be focused around the technology which most users use most often.”
“Site navigation needs to ruthlessly prioritise the tasks which most users need to do most time and ruthlessly deprioritise tasks which few users use rarely.”
“In some situations, the words used to describe a product or service are the most important influencing factors in a potential customer buying.”
“I have never watched the author’s teenage daughter on her mobile phone.”
The digital industry owes it to its clients to speak to them with more honesty –and to impress upon them the need for nuance and detail – if it is to enjoy credibility in the boardrooms of its clients.
The industry should also learn from the mistakes of the past.
If clients see us as credible they are better informed, happier and engaged. They are also armed with the detailed information they need to make nuanced and strategically informed digital choices.
* Research involved a sample size of two users, who were instructed only to click official links as part of the test