Scary Papers: fascinating research into emotions and response among readers of court papers

I attended the ICClear/Clarity2014 conference in Belgium last November (http://icclearclarity.com/). I learned about some very interesting research by Tialda Sikkema of Utrecht University. In her presentation, Scary Papers, Tialda explained the effect of stress and conflict on readers’ understanding of court summons letters. These letters explain an important and complex process. They are sent to people who are under stress — the court summons often relates to debts they have left unpaid due to difficult circumstances at home.

As you might expect, stress such as a court case reduces the reader’s capacity to understand complex information. We have found the same thing when working on legal and medical documents, and we help our clients design documents that work for people in these situations.

Tialda found something else about the role of emotion: it not only affects understanding, but also affects compliance. What emotions would improve readers’ success in completing the tasks set out in the court summons? Tialda’s research examined the emotions people experience when reading different versions of the same letter – versions with different design, language, and tone. She found that emotions correspond to response, such as completion rates of forms, or the quality of the reader’s response.

For example, a court summons redesigned to be clearer was less likely to make readers despair about their situation. The chart below shows one emotional response to the summons. ‘Moedeloosheid’ translates approximately as ‘despondency’. The chart on the left is for the ‘classic’ version. The chart on the right is for a redesigned ‘modern’ summons.

The redesign roughly halved the proportion of readers feeling despondent, and reduced the strength of their negative emotional response.

A redesigned summons halved the despondency readers felt

Despondency: strength of emotional response to two versions of a court summons

Despondency in readers can lead to inaction — Tialda compared the situation to the large pile of unopened ‘final demand’ bills a reader may be unable to face engaging with.

This research gives a new insight into creating documents that work in stressful situations. We need to look at not only the clarity of the information but the emotions caused by the way it is presented. That will give us the best chance of documents that the reader not only understands, but that they also react to in the way we want.

Read more about Tialda’s research group

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