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Department of English launches reader experience lab

Ohio State facility tracks efficacy of written messages

In another lifetime, Christa Teston might have worked in usability testing.

“I’m genuinely curious about how people navigate technologies, documents and other forms of messaging,” she said.

Teston, an associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, runs the department’s reader experience, or RX, lab. A spinoff of UX labs, which study user experience for products and services, the RX lab examines how people read and understand messages – a good fit for Teston’s passion.

“This is a dream of mine,” she said of the lab, which soft-opened in January.Christa Teston

A cohort of undergraduate students studying business writing are taking the lab for its first spin this semester. They are studying the efficacy of messaging for a plastic-free Great Lakes campaign, in partnership with Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Laboratory.

“They’re interested in knowing whether the messages they’ve designed are effective – are they accomplishing the goals of the campaign? Those goals might be educational, like knowing the current status of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes, but they might also be motivational. For example, how inspired are you to adopt a different practice when it comes to using straws based on your encountering this message that we’ve designed,” she said.

Students observe subjects as they read or watch a message. Participants may be asked to talk aloud about what they’re seeing. Their gestures and physical reactions will also be monitored. All of these cues indicate how a message is received.

While the research has immediate use for students, Teston said it also gives them skills to add to their post-college resumes. A specific benefit to the lab is working with humans.

“[We’re] doing what’s called ‘human subjects research,’ which has such rigorous oversight,” she said. “I think that helps with professionalism. Knowing how to ask for consent – that’s a thing people often don’t know how to do.”

More broadly, the data that students capture can help with another skill: editing.

“We ask students in our writing classrooms to do multiple iterations of the things they write for us, but they often don’t have data for how to improve something,” she said. “Having access to data, or at least access to methods of collecting those data – that is something that could be helpful in the future.”

Student researchers aren’t the only ones who will benefit from the RX lab. Teston believes her university colleagues can use the resource in their work, regardless of field.

“I feel like it’s useful for pretty much any department,” she said. “Any profession, any major, knowing how people are perceiving and reacting to messages – that’s important for folks in the sciences, it’s important for folks in architecture, it’s important for folks in public health.”

In the fall, eye-tracking software will be available for use in the lab. Teston said her graduate students are particularly excited to use it.

“They’re curious about capturing information about where people’s eyes go,” she said. “How fast do they skim messages? Do they skip over paragraphs? What are people’s reading habits? I don’t know that we know a lot about that, especially in the age of online reading.”

UX labs are studying similar veins in places like Australia, South Carolina, Alabama and Arizona, Teston said, but that work is more focused on the body’s response to messages: things like heart rate and brain response.

“Ours is really the only one [focused] on reading,” she said.

All of this work focuses on clarifying messages, which is something for which Teston has been a longtime advocate.

“[My] overarching motivation is continuous improvement of messaging,” she said. “Conflict seems to emerge around miscommunication: what people can expect, what people can’t expect – just making sure instructions are clear. It’s about setting the right expectations. That happens so frequently through writing.”

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