Kudos to Minnesota State Officials

A November 8 article in the New York Times describes the management of a Polio outbreak of sorts in an Amish community. Handling a health crisis such as this in a mainstream population involves phone calls, home visits, invasive testing, television interviews and other loud, public interventions. But of course, the Amish do not embrace modernity, and so officials must adjust their methods to learn about and control the threat to others.

One excellent example of how the definition of usability starts with the user can be understood with this excerpt from the New York Times article:

Confirming the presence of polio in a city with even one infected person is not impossible, said Dr. Mark D. Sobsey, a professor of environmental microbiology at the University of North Carolina. The stool of an infected person contains so many viral particles that tests at a sewage treatment plant can reveal it. Such tests helped track outbreaks in the Gaza Strip and Haiti in recent years.

Since many Amish use outhouses, however, state officials geared up to go door to door. They unearthed a public health form explaining how to collect stool samples. The form had pictures of a flush toilet and a garbage can with a plastic liner – things foreign to many Amish communities. Officials changed the form.

They changed the form! Hooray for usability! Further kudos to Mr. Gary Wax, an epidemiologist for the Minnesota Department of Health who:

…contacted the leader of the Amish community where the child lives and asked for his permission to seek stool samples from those in his community. The leader gave his blessing, Mr. Wax said.

“We really tried to do it in a respectful way rather than just barge right in there,” Mr. Wax said.

Since the Amish have no phones, he could not call for appointments. He and his colleagues knocked on doors. They had been warned against speaking directly to Amish women without their husbands present, Mr. Wax said, and the men were “running all over the place, helping each other with harvesting and construction.” So if the man was not at home, they left.

Here’s a man who understood his “user” and created an experience that catered to their needs while meeting the “business” need of his organization.

I’m impressed.


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