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Ambiguity in Times of Crises

Like many of you, we’ve been trying to make sense of all the COVID-19 information being thrown at us.

As Information Architects, we’re wired to think about systems and the flow of information. We’re constantly thinking about language, how information is presented, and how information is structured. Good IA hinges on getting the right information to the right people at the right times.

So we wonder—how have people been searching for the COVID-19 information they need? What words are they using? Where are the gaps? How do organizations connect people to information, while keeping in mind the needs of their audience?

Causes of Information Anxiety

In times of uncertainty, we all think we want as much information as possible. But, what we really need is the right information and to be able to trust that the information is accurate. In Abby Covert’s book How to Make Sense of Any Mess, she outlines the main causes of Information Anxiety (a term coined by Richard Saul Wurman):

  • Too much information
  • Not enough information
  • Not the right information
  • Some combination of these

So, if you feel like you’re experiencing Information Anxiety around the COVID-19 pandemic, you’re not alone. This anxiety is happening collectively, on a global scale. It’s even difficult for data experts to make sense of the information that is so important for formulating accurate models around the spread of the virus.

But here’s the good news: Information Architects are well-positioned to help alleviate some of these immediate information problems! By choosing our words carefully and understanding the semantic distinctions in the language we use, we have the power to contextualize. (For more on this, read Gary Carlson’s recent blog post “Words Have Meaning. Words have Context.”)

Be Wary of Labels and Semantic Differences

Especially during such an overwhelming time, we need to be wary of semantic differences, what terms we use synonymously, and how concepts are labeled or named.

We’ve seen many new concepts crop up since this crisis has started. Our team has taken the time to educate ourselves about some drastic contextual differences. We’ve learned the difference between the terms “Coronavirus” and “COVID-19”, and “virus” vs. “disease”. (Over the years, Factor has had a few clients in the medical industry, so we realize the importance of semantic differences like these.)

We’re seeing what happens in real-time when terms have not been properly disambiguated for the general public.

In the early stages of the outbreak, the virus was referred to as the “Wuhan Virus.” And since then, it’s stigmatized any Asian-looking person, where displaced emotional blame has been attached to them. This illustrates the peril of referring to viruses after where they’re from. The Spanish Flu was re-labeled as the Influenza Pandemic of 1919 for similar reasons.

Imagine, if, in 2009, the Swine Flu was commonly referred to as “The American Virus” simply because it originated from the United States. How might Americans have been viewed internationally?

It is important to consider the harm that mislabeling can do to others. Faulty labeling problems can manifest as real-world problems.

“But, what do you mean?”

Image Source: Seattle Times

Here is another example of how the complexity of language can create information problems, or Information Anxiety:

“Social Distancing” is a novel term that we haven’t fully adapted to our vernacular yet. The ambiguity of the term has confused many people who need to know how to practice it, and why it’s important. The media and other enforcing organizations are often required to provide context and clarification through concrete examples of what is or isn’t acceptable “Social Distancing”.

The definition of the term “Social Distancing” has also evolved as the crisis has worsened. (i.e., does it mean ten or fewer people? Or, two or more people?) The length of physical distance between people has shifted. These changing definitions make it difficult to understand the term in its full context in our COVID-19 era.

A lot of the confusion lies in the fact that the term is obscure. “Stay Home” is perhaps the most understood way of getting the message across, but that’s not quite right either as it sounds too informal compared to the former term. Here in Washington State, there have been attempts to socialize the phrase “Stay Home. Limit Travel. Save Lives.” That might be the right amount of context for most people, but it still carries some ambiguity.

Because accurate and trustworthy information is so critical to fighting this pandemic, it is now more important than ever that we rely on the fundamentals of information architecture to clarify, to communicate, and even to comfort.