By Barbara Spector
Janice (Ginny) Redish '63
Why are so many software manuals, legal documents and government forms incomprehensible to laypeople? Why are Internet users often perplexed by cumbersome online surveys and applications? Janice (Ginny) Redish '63, president of Redish & Associates Inc. in Bethesda, Md., has devoted her career to answering such questions and helping people communicate clearly.
Usually, says Redish, the problem stems from a culture clash between the document creators and the general public. "You have to ask not just, 'What's wrong with the product?' but also 'How did it get that way?'" she explains. "It has to do with the way people are taught — the expectations they're given and the processes in the workplace." She recalls, for example, one lawyer's response to her suggestion that active voice is more readable than passive voice. "He said, 'We were taught to take all the people out to make it more objective,'" says Redish.
In school, Redish points out, students read to gain knowledge and are rewarded for flowery essays. But on the job, "all documents are reference documents," she notes. "People don't read them cover to cover; they just want to grab some information they need to complete a task."
In most cases, Redish says, white space enhances usability, especially on the Internet. Lists, tables, icons and even sentence fragments can help busy readers find needed information quickly. Yet Redish says she often must overcome resistance when explaining this principle to clients who fear visual enhancements will "dumb down" a document. In one case, for example, a client protested, "You can't put a bulleted list in a legal document." She explained that on the contrary, ensuring reader comprehension would help achieve the legal purpose of the document — ensuring voluntary compliance with regulations.
Right Place, Right Time
Redish has aided clients in Canada, Europe, Japan and the United States, including AARP, Boeing, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Cancer Institute, Nokia, SAP and Xerox. Among many honors, she was a co-recipient of the Society for Technical Communication's President's Award in 2004 and received the IEEE Professional Communication Society's Alfred N. Goldsmith Award in 2001 and the Usability Professionals' Association's President's Award in 1998.
Redish says that like many women of her generation, she came to her career "by a circuitous route." At Bryn Mawr, she majored in Russian and political science. "I'm not sure I had career plans other than to get a fabulous education — which I did," she says. "Bryn Mawr was phenomenal for me as an all-women's college. Being an intellectual woman was what was expected."
Redish was interested in languages and studied Greek and French as well as Russian. "In my senior year, we had a class in linguistics, and I was fascinated by it," she says, "so I decided to become a linguistics major." In 1963-64, she was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Amsterdam .
She entered Harvard University and received a Ph.D. in linguistics in 1969. "In both my Bryn Mawr and my graduate work, I learned to think," she says. "Particularly in my graduate work, I was doing a lot of analysis and synthesis."
While at graduate school, she met her husband, Edward (Joe) Redish, now a professor of physics at the University of Maryland, College Park. She planned to become a linguistics professor, but the couple could not find two academic jobs in the Maryland/Washington, D.C., area.
Fortuitously, the Washington-based American Institutes for Research (AIR) — a nonprofit research and consulting firm — was seeking a candidate with sharp analytical skills and a solid academic pedigree, and Redish joined the staff in 1977. This put her in the right place at the right time to respond to President Jimmy Carter's directive that all government documents be written in plain English. Redish wrote the winning proposal for the federally funded Document Design Project and in 1979 expanded the effort into AIR's Document Design Center, which she directed for 13 years.
The Global Village
With the advent of personal computers in the 1980s, the center expanded its commitment to plain language by helping companies like Hewlett-Packard and IBM develop documentation that business executives could understand. Once graphical user interface products were developed, Redish shifted her focus to online help.
A common problem with the Internet, Redish notes, is that the design of online documents involves a combination of skills — graphic design, information design, computer programming and written communication. "It's very unlikely that one person has all these skills," she says.
In 1985, Redish established one of the first independent usability testing laboratories in North America, where researchers and developers could observe real people trying out computer software and documentation. The discipline is a blend of product development quality assurance and academic psychology, she notes. "It is eye-opening, and sometimes humbling" to see users attempting to complete a task, she says.
With the rise of offshoring, it is even more essential to consider the needs of the user, says Redish, who opened her consulting practice in 1992. For example, a U.S. mailbox is not an appropriate icon to signify e-mail because the picture is meaningless to an international audience, she notes. "You have to get people thinking of their global teammates and global audiences."
Barbara Spector writes on science and technology as well as business topics. She is the editor-in-chief of Family Business magazine and former editor of The Scientist.