How to get the most from the field-testing process

Ask the right questions

Whether using focus groups or individuals to field-test materials the object of the exercise is to determine if the material has audience appeal, if people comprehend what it is they are reading, if it is relevant to the culture for which it is written, and whether the reader will put the information into practice.

It is important to determine if the cover and title will make a person want to pick up a booklet and read it.

"If your cover design and text aren't appealing then no matter how well written the booklet you are not going to keep your reader," explains Wendy Mettger, MA, president of Mettger Communications in Takoma Park, MD, a consulting firm that specializes in health literacy and plain language projects.

Eliciting appeal depends on such things as the size of the words on the pages, as well as the number of words, the colors used, whether there is too much color or not enough. For example, Mettger determined a booklet was too dark during one-on-one interviews.

It isn't enough that people are able to read the words on the page; it is important to determine if they understand the message. It's good to begin with a general question, asking what the reader thinks the booklet is about, says Mettger.

Follow up with specific questions, such as asking the reader for the three main messages. "It is a way to see if the writing is clear enough so people can easily pick out the main messages," says Mettger.

Also ask for information that can be gleaned by the booklet. For example, in a pamphlet on Alzheimer's disease the question might be why it is important to see the doctor early when experiencing memory loss. "We want to know if the message resonates and if people can recall it," Mettger says.

Often she encourages people to re-read the text if they can't quite remember exact points. "If people go back through and can't find the information that is a clue that we may need to clarify it, make it more visible, or provide a better definition. It is very helpful to me to see people trying to scan, which is a difficult skill for some marginal readers," says Mettger.

To determine cultural appeal, ask if the way the pamphlet looks or if the words used are offensive to the reader.

Finally, it is important to determine if the reader can envision using the information. For example, can people see themselves talking to their physician about the information provided in the booklet?

Sandra Cornett, RN, PhD, director of the OSU/AHEC Health Literacy Program at The Ohio State University in Columbus, suggests field-testing include the following questions:

  • Begin the discussion with general questions such as: What are some words you would use to describe this pamphlet? What do you like best/least about this brochure?
  • Questions about content might include: What are some of the major ideas? Are any ideas confusing to you? Are there any important ideas left out? Are people with similar problems likely to be concerned about these ideas?
  • To determine if the reader will use the information ask: Can a person reading this booklet do what it recommends? If you were given this booklet, what would you do with it? Describe how you would use this booklet in the future.
  • Questions to evaluate the writing style might include: Are there words you don't understand? What do you think about how the ideas were presented? What do you think about the length of the booklet? Do the words sound similar to the way people talk?
  • Layout and design might be evaluated by asking these questions: What do you like or dislike about the way the material looks? Do the pictures help get the ideas across? Are there pictures you would change or add? Is the print large enough? Is it organized in a way that helps you understand the key points?