Writing Technical Content for Consumers: The Mom Test

This Mother’s Day, it is appropriate for us to honor not only our mothers but one of our best focus groups for literature aimed at the healthcare consumer. Patient literature is exploding right now with lots of content (online and offline) for people who want health information. A great deal of patient literature is read by senior citizens.

You see patient literature everywhere nowadays. Go into any doctor’s waiting room and you’ll see lots of cardboard brochure stands with pamphlets aimed at talking directly to the healthcare consumer.

There’s even more patient content on the Internet. Most medical companies offer a lot of patient-oriented materials on their main websites and some have spin-off sites devoted exclusively to the consumer.

What does this have to do with Mother’s Day? Writing patient literature is somewhat more of an art form than writing technical specifications. To know if you’ve done it right, you need to subject your material to “the mom test.”

Sometimes I do this literally. I bring the material home, in as close to final form as possible, and hand it to my mother. I ask her to look it over and give me her opinion. I’m mainly interested in whether or not she could follow what was being presented.

Some writers use the “mom test” in a more imaginary way and try to read the material from the perspective of their own parents.

Since healthcare consumers are often senior citizens, the “mom test” is very appropriate for patient material aimed at this demographic. If you’re writing for patients who are more likely to be young adults or even teens, you need to test in an appropriate age group.

When writing literature aimed at the healthcare consumer, the real trick is not to sacrifice simplicity for accuracy or vice vera. Sometimes, in an effort to avoid using big words or difficult concepts, errors or misleading statements get injected.

There is also the danger that no matter how carefully you present the content, it is too technical or confusing for the reader. This is possible when crafting any highly complicated content for a lay audience.

With patient literature, the creators have to walk a tightrope: on the one hand, it must be accurate and well-balanced, but on the other hand, it should be friendly, upbeat, and reassuring. You can’t mislead your reader, but you have to be very careful not to frighten him or her, either!

What’s funny about the mom test is that often patient literature prepared at my agency gets good marks in those departments but we learn other things. It seems that by deliberately working hard to be clear, honest, accurate, yet positive, we turn out copy that meets those standards. But sometimes we drop the ball in ways we never imagined.

In one brochure, my mother informed us, the type was hard to read. The designer had done something very attractive and artistic and had placed gray type on a white background. It’s very trendy among artists right now to do that. The trouble is, my mom said it was hard to read. (The brochure was for heart disease which is typically a health concern of older people so our target readers would be around the age of my mother.)

We switched the type to black. Perhaps not as artistic, but at least our potential customers could read it. We then passed the mom test.

In another brochure, we used a lot of big medical terms but defined them in a mini-glossary in the back. We thought this was terribly clever. My mother found it annoying to have to keep turning to the back of the brochure to find the definitions. We re-designed the piece to make the glossary a “flap” that also worked as a bookmark. Again, she gave us thumbs up.

For another project, another person’s mom was given some material and although she found the material fine, she suggested that we do an audio cassette or CD with the same content for people who have trouble reading. Another great idea! To be fair to us, this idea had already been kicked around, but hearing a “mom” articulate the idea was all it took to turn the project into a reality.

Another mom test was conducted on a website. Again, this site had a list of commonly used terms that related to the disease in question. The idea was that patients could use this list to learn more about their condition. My mother said, “Those definitions and explanations are fine, I guess, but why can’t you just explain it in plain English?”

That gave us a great idea. We left the terms exactly as is but we added a new choice to the website. You could now view the medical term and get its definition or you could press, “Tell Me In Plain English.” Then we rewrote the definition. Because of the “plain English” button you had to press to access this definition, we had a bit more freedom in being folksy with these definitions.

So now that it’s almost Mother’s Day, it’s time to thank a very responsive and valuable (and unpaid) focus group for many writers: our mothers.