Can we call this a result?

Apologies in advance for the medical nature of what you’re about to read. It’s not very detailed or icky, I promise.

I recently had a cervical smear test and was pleased that the results letter arrived quickly as waiting can be quite worrisome. However, I was less impressed with the letter itself. Although I have nothing to worry about, the way the letter was worded sent me into such a panic after the second sentence that I was incapable of focusing to read the rest for several minutes. I then had to re-read the letter to make sure I had understood it. I decided that instead of just being panicked by it I would try to improve things a bit. I wrote to PALS and on their recommendation I forwarded my comments to the National Cervical Screening Board.

This is the wording of the results letter I received:

Thank you for attending for your recent cervical smear test.

The report from the laboratory showed that your cervical screening result was abnormal. This report means that there are changes to some of the cells in your cervix called mild dyskariosis. These changes sometimes happen, they are not cancer and in most cases do not lead to cancer. The cell changes can indicate infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV) which may cause cervical abnormalities.

The laboratory tested your screening sample for HPV and reported that there was no evidence of HPV infection. This means that your risk of developing cancer is very low at this time. Your next screening test is due on or around 28.01.2016. We will send you a reminder nearer the time.

Cervical screening, like other medical tests, is not perfect and does not find every abnormality of the cervix. If you have any unusual symptoms like discharge or irregular bleeding, don’t wait for your next test, but consult your GP.

If you have any concerns about your test or would like more information about cervical screening and HPV testing, please contact your surgery. If you should change address would you please inform your GP surgery as soon as possible to ensure you receive future invitations.

Careful wording can make a great deal of difference to how a reader responds. I feel this is especially important when writing about people’s health. The phrase “your result was abnormal” is not a good introduction to a letter that essentially says you’re fine. I decided that the best way to demonstrate my point was to re-write the letter:

Thank you for attending for your recent cervical smear test.

The report from the laboratory showed that there are changes to some of the cells in your cervix. These changes, called mild dyskariosis, sometimes happen. They are not cancer and in most cases cause no problems.

Cervical abnormalities may be caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). The laboratory reported that there was no evidence of HPV infection. This means that your risk of developing cancer is very low at this time.

You do not need to have any further investigations or return for a cervical smear test before your usual routine screening appointment, which is due on or around 28.01.2016. We will send you a reminder nearer the time.

Cervical screening, like other medical tests, is not perfect and does not find every abnormality of the cervix. If you have any unusual symptoms like discharge or irregular bleeding, don’t wait for your next test, but consult your GP.

If you have any concerns about your test or would like more information about cervical screening and HPV testing, please contact your surgery. If you should change address would you please inform your GP surgery as soon as possible to ensure you receive future invitations.

I invite you to compare my copy with the original, thinking about how you might feel to receive each of them. I invited PALS and the National cervical Screening Board to do the same. Apparently all results letters are currently being rewritten by a “team of experts.” I wonder if that team is all medical experts or if they have authors involved too?

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Dear Nina, where can I find Ada?

I’m not sure I ever noticed the gender divide in STEM when I was growing up. In my house people were people, toys were toys and kids were kids. The older I get, however, the more I see the stereotypes and expectations subtly undermining the good work of generations of feminists. Since I became a mum I’m acutely aware of the way society treats my two children and how different it is, just because one is a boy and one is a girl.

Ada Lovelace Day is supposed to be about real women doing real science and technology work. But they’re not the only role models we offer our children, and by the time most kids are old enough to understand what people do for a living they have already had several years of deep social conditioning. So today I decided to write about one little corner of a small child’s world that is doing right by my kids: Nina and the Neurons.

Nina and a magnifying glass

Nina taking a close look at looking

For those unfamiliar with the programme, it is a CBeebies programme aimed at four to six year olds. It features a scientist called Nina who helps small groups of children explore and experiment to answer their questions – everything from “What happens to rubbish?” to “Why is Granddad’s skin wrinkly?” She does this with the help of five Neurons – a cartoon character for each of the five senses – although they’re largely incidental to the main focus, which is all about finding out.

In each episode she involves the children in a few hands-on experiments, takes them on a field trip and offers them all sorts of information around the subject of their question. By the end of the ten minute programme they have an answer in terms they can understand and a whole lot more besides, including getting to know a fantastic role model for women in science and technology.

The key thing I like about this programme is that Nina’s gender is utterly irrelevant. She is a scientist who happens to be female. Her trademark physical characteristic is to wear her hair in bunches. That’s about as far as her femininity goes, because beyond that it’s all about lab coats and safety specs. When the rest of the world is like this, when someone’s gender is wholly unremarkable in a professional context, that’s when we’ll have won the equality battle. Until then, I shall quite happily sit both my son and my daughter in front of the odd episode of Nina and the Neurons so that at least sometimes they see a woman employed for her skill and her brain, even if she is a fictional character.

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Explaining genes to geeks

My husband doesn’t get biology. He’d like to, he just doesn’t. One of our recent late-night conversations recently was about genes, chromosomes and all those other confusing words. I explained them in terms he might understand: computer programs and storage.

DNA is the chemical code that all genes are built from. It’s like the pits on a CD – meaningless without interpretation. CD pits are in binary, DNA is in base 4.

A gene is a piece of code that does a specific job. Sometimes there are several genes that work together, such as creating colour in hair. It’s like a file or a library, which is only a small part of the whole program.

A chromosome is a physical collection of genes. It’s a very long spiral of DNA, all twisted together into one piece. It’s the equivalent of a CD, which might contain any number of files but not necessarily the whole program.

A genome is every bit of data in every chromosome. It’s like the whole box set of CDs needed to run the full program.

An allele is a version of a gene. For example, there is a gene that governs blood type and comes in A, B and O alleles. This is like different versions of a file. To take the analogy a step further, if you have two copies of that file and only use the most recent, that’s how dominant alleles (often referred to as dominant genes) work. Also like file versions, the differences between alleles might have a big impact on the organism or an imperceptible small one.

A mutation is a random change in the code, which gives different alleles. Rather than a Hollywood style monster creation, it’s more like a file revision. It might make things run better, or it might introduce bugs.

So now you know.

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Resurfacing

Well, it’s been a while, hasn’t it?

I’ve taken something of a break from this blog. Firstly it was because I didn’t really have anything to write. Then I got sidetracked by something far more important and exciting: I had a baby.

Susan with yarn

Six months old and already learning to crochet

Susan is my second child and has given me baby brain almost as badly as her big brother did. Sometimes I have complete blanks in my memory and total lapses in concentration, other times it’s like thinking through treacle. However, it seems to be fading now. The calendar also tells me I should be going back to work soon.

I’ve decided that I need to get my writing brain back into gear, and that blogging would be a good way to do that. Because I’ve been pretty much drowning in nappies lately, I don’t have much to write about that doesn’t involve babies somehow, so I’m expanding the remit of this blog. I’m not going to limit myself to technical communication and related fields, I’m going to use it for any and every vaguely serious point I want to make, information I wish to disseminate or idea I want to toss around. I hope that won’t make it any less interesting for you!

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How to write instructions

There are lots of books available on technical writing – a quick search of Amazon comes up with over 6,000 titles. No doubt many of them are fantastic books, but it’s kind of tricky to know where to start with a list that long, especially if you have limited funds and can’t just buy everything that looks interesting. A lot of the books are quite large and detailed, which may be helpful for reference or course books, but not when you’re looking to learn but don’t have much time.

Ronseal Quick Drying Varnish

Just like Ronseal, this book does exactly what it says on the tin.

The Kindle ebook How to write instructions from technical writing consultancy Cherryleaf is different. It deliberately sets out to be small and light; as a consequence it’s also cheap. It won’t tell you all there is to know about technical writing, nor will it make you an expert overnight. Instead it focuses on one core task and helps you do a reasonable job of it.

The book takes you through the whole process of writing instructions, from researching the topic and audience all the way to publishing. Each step has a dedicated chapter explaining what, why and how. The writing throughout is clear and accessible, making it much easier to read than most text books. It also backs up the guidelines it suggests by explaining why they matter. For example, instead of just telling you to use headings it explains that they’re important as signposts for the reader.

The book goes beyond a set of rules to be followed: it offers choices. There often is no “one size fits all” approach and this book embraces that, encouraging you to decide for yourself which way is best for what you are trying to tell your audience. It gives a number of different possible approaches to ordering topics, organising the information within them and so on. It hits a nice balance, giving you enough information without overwhelming you with too many options or lengthy discussions on their relative merits.

As well as giving stated examples throughout the book the text frequently stands as its own example. In the section on writing topics it states “it’s ok to use an informal tone.” The whole book, from overall structure to the placement of commas, stands as an example of its core principles. The ease with which the instructions can be found, understood and followed is a persuasive argument for following the advice they offer.

I recommend this book to anyone who has found themselves writing instructions but isn’t specifically trained or experienced in it. Anyone with a basic grasp of English can pick up the helpful ideas and tips in How to write instructions and apply them. For my own part I’ve learned a fair amount about the subject in a piecemeal fashion and this book has been very helpful in bringing it all together and filling in a few gaps.

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Workification of games

Gamification is all about taking something that feels like work and making it fun. Done right it can encourage return visits to websites, aid learning and get people involved in whatever activity you’re trying to make work. But what about doing the reverse? What about taking a game and making it seem like work? Nobody would ever “workify” something fun, would they? And yet…

Lately I tried a computer game called Lugaru. It’s an open-source, 3D action game starring “an anthropomorphic rebel bunny rabbit with impressive combat skills.” Sounds fun! And it might be, but I didn’t get past the tutorial level. Before you get into the game it tries to teach you several different modes of movement and half a dozen attacks. For each one you are given the instructions on key presses required and then given time to practice in a small, safe area with nothing to look at and nothing to interact with. There were lots of things to remember that all required concentration and co-ordination and the only reward for mastering one move was to be taught the next. It felt like work and it’s not the first time I’ve seen computer game tutorial levels fall foul of the same problem.

Workification happens in board games, too. I’m a bit of a board games fan and own a number by Steve Jackson, including Burn in Hell. The idea is that you trade cards representing souls and try to collect sets of souls that share the same sin. As is common with Steve Jackson games it is littered with amusing caricatures and titbits of information. The problem comes when you reach the end of the game and have to count up points. Instead of just counting cards you have to figure out whether you can double or treble the points for each set, and the whole thing turns into a maths test instead of a game.

A little outside my own experience, a classic example from the world of wargames is Challenger 2000. For an afternoon of moving miniature tanks around a table the publishers provide 90 pages of rules and two double-sided “quick reference” sheets. There is a school of thought that more detailed rules provide a more accurate representation of the real world, though I am assured there are plenty of examples where this isn’t true and more complicated rule sets are just more complicated. From what I understand they tend not to get played very often.

It strikes me that the workification of games happens rather more frequently than would be expected. Does anyone have any examples they’d like to add?

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Why I hate learning

I like learning. I like finding out what, how and why. With an engaging and enthusiastic teacher I can become engrossed in almost any topic by my desire to know – even football!* And yet I find learning can be a cause of great irritation.

Push or pull?

Some years ago I read The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman. It’s a short, readable insight into some of the basic principles of design, with an emphasis on how we as human beings interact with inanimate objects. One section described how a well-designed door handle can allow a person to pass through without consciously thinking about whether to push or pull. Conversely a badly designed one can make you walk face-first into a “pull” door – frustrating and potentially painful. I am in no way a design expert, but I did learn a lot in reading that book. Now when I am faced with a door that I don’t immediately know whether to push or pull not only do I have the frustration of dealing with an awkward door but I also have the irritation caused by knowing it could have been designed much better.

Push-power assisted door

Continuing the door theme, this sign is on a door near where I work:

Push-power assisted door

The first time I tried to go through this door I was utterly confused as to how I was supposed to open it. It turns out it works like an entirely ordinary door, but only needs a light shove to move it. Kind of like power steering, I suppose.

Previously I would have read the sign and been mildly amused at the notion of a door being “push-assisted” given how many doors fall into that category without any need for a sign. But now I’m irritated by how badly laid out the words on the sign are. I can thank Robin Williams for that, having read The Non-Designer’s Design Book. Again, I’m no document design expert but I now understand some of the basic principles well enough to know why the sign is not well designed – the spacing is all wrong, the line-breaks make it confusing and, for my money, the word choice and order could be better. And so my amusement turns to irritation.

Pulling my socks up

The very worst irritation of learning is finding something I did myself and realising how badly I did it. Last week I picked up a document I wrote a year ago with a view to updating it. It’s clumsy and confusing and I was very glad that very few people read it.

Being able to see where I’ve done badly in the past is a step towards doing better in the future, so in that sense it’s good. It doesn’t mean I have to like it, though.

* I used to understand the off-side rule. Really.

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