Trying For Fun, And Ending Up With A Textbook Instead

Note: This blog post was originally published as a blog on Scientific American – http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/frontiers-for-young-minds/trying-for-fun-and-ending-up-with-a-textbook-instead/


Knowing your audience is a vital piece of science communication: what is important to them, what is exciting to them, and what will send the right message. But it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that knowing about your audience is the same as knowing what they actually like. I speak from personal experience and – as the manager of a journal founded on the idea of asking kids to review scientific articles for their own peers – the irony of my own surprise at kid feedback is not lost.

We recently set about creating a new design for the PDF versions of our articles. The goal was to make them more accessible and more enticing to young readers. Our team came up with a series of proposals that were each designed with the following goals in mind:

  • Make the articles easier to read
  • Take better advantage of the figures
  • Make the articles seem more fun
  • Make the new vocabulary easier to understand
  • Make the articles feel as little like school as possible
  • Get young readers to want to read all the way to the end

Though all of our goals were the same, the proposals were quite different. Should there be one column of text per page or two? Two makes it feel more like a real scientific article, but is also more confusing for younger readers. Should the figure captions be underneath the figures, or should we pull them out to the side? Should the highlighted new vocabulary be defined at the bottom of each page or in the margin near the relevant part of the text?

Three versions of the same page for the test article sent out to kids for the survey. 

For each point there was a group of us who felt like our preference was more fun and easier to read. There was complete disagreement about which version felt the least like a textbook.

After a few rounds of discussion, we decided that the best option was to ask young readers directly. We compiled three versions of the same article, created a short survey, and asked the opinions of some family members and some of our previous Young Reviewers. Questions included ranking the versions in order of preference, identifying which seemed the most fun or the most like a textbook, and choosing which made the figures and vocabulary easiest to understand.

Eight of the readers got back to us with their feedback. They were from multiple countries (some spoke English only as a second language), ranged in age from 7-16, and were split evenly by gender. None of them knew each other. As varied as their backgrounds were, their responses were shockingly consistent and shared one common theme: the version most preferred by us in the Editorial Office was the one most uniformly disliked by our young readers.

Responses by kids about their preferences for each article format. It should be noted that Version 1 was the preferred option before the survey. (Graph from ‘Thank You’ message sent to particpants).

Responses by kids about their preferences for each article format. It should be noted that Version 1 was the preferred option before the survey. (Graph from ‘Thank You’ message sent to particpants). 

While we thought it would be exciting to have a two-column format like an academic journal this was “confusing for the reading order” and “looked like my history textbook.”

As for including figure captions underneath figures as opposed to highlighting them in the margin – “this just breaks up the text” or “probably makes me more likely to just skip over it.”

We thought that the vocabulary in the margin would feel more like a textbook, but multiple kids felt this was more “clean” or “visually interesting.”

One version happened to include a blue stripe in the margin, and though this was not asked about in the survey, it was mentioned as a selling point by 5 of the 8 kids.

Companies that market toys and games seem to appreciate the value of asking kids what they find the most exciting or interesting. This was just another reminder for people who want to communicate science to younger audiences about the value of doing the same thing.

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