Even in the digital age, we must remember that not everyone has access to the Internet. But they should still have access to government information. As part of USAGov’s effort to do just that, we produce the Consumer Action Handbook (CAH) and the Gu√≠a del Consumidor in Spanish. This publication empowers people to make informed purchases, avoid fraud, and exercise their consumer rights. More than a textbook, the CAH is actionable. We do the legwork, aggregating the resources from across government and the private sector.
Over the course of the year, we keep a spreadsheet of potential topics for inclusion in the CAH. These potential topics may be new government websites, like Identitytheft.gov, or programs that launched, like CFPB’s Owning a Home, that would be helpful to the public. We also read hundreds of news stories, about consumers facing poor customer service, deceptive clauses hidden in the finest of print, or fraudulent offers that seem too good to be true.
Not all consumer issues are addressed at the federal level. Some issues are regulated by states (insurance and lemon laws). Even so, sometimes new trends happen faster than government agencies can act on them. Plus we have to keep up with scammers, who are quick on their feet. We consider and incorporate all of these factors as part of the consumer marketplace.
Real people provide great insights. Last summer we had the opportunity to hold three consumer focus groups (two in English, one in Spanish). These honest conversations revealed more about the issues people were facing than we could have imagined. Combined with the letters we regularly receive, they re-enforced how crucial it is that the CAH include practical tips that help people prevent problems and get real solutions.
If we included all the information from the collection stage, the Consumer Action Handbook would be gigantic, and not very usable. So our next big task is narrowing down all the potential topics to the ones we’ll actually include. In evaluating topics we ask ourselves:
- Does this topic apply to a wide segment of the population?
- Is there a recurring theme around this topic?
- Is there an actionable component - is there an action we can advise readers to take or avoid?
- Can we provide value?
- Can we fill an information gap that hasn’t been filled by any other agency? This is especially true with scams and new consumer technologies.
- Is it timely? And on the flip side, will this issue still be relevant when the CAH is printed next year?
In addition to evaluating potential new topics, we use these criteria to re-evaluate the content from the previous edition, to determine which topics to eliminate.
The information needs of CAH readers varies drastically. We have to account for the variation in our readers’ education, reading comprehension level, consumer experience, technical savvy, susceptibility to frauds, and access to resources.
To write new content about a topic, we have to put all the puzzle pieces together to tell a comprehensive story. Each resource we find may focus on one portion of the topic or only highlight one tool. So we incorporate pieces from all the resources into one succinct piece of content on the subject, featuring the best insights from articles, agencies resources, and focus groups.
The most recent edition of the CAH includes forty new articles on topics ranging from chip and pin credit cards, medical billing, credit card cracking, and what to do after a data breach. Luckily we don’t have to start fresh every time; the text from the previous edition is our starting point, but some content has to be dropped to make room for the new.
Layout and Design
If compiling several pieces of content is a part of a puzzle exercise, then the CAH page layout is another, part mental, part visual and spacial. We adhere to master pages and styles to make the layout consistent. Within these parameters, however, we constantly struggle to make all the content fit, by aligning adjacent sections, using iterative page shifts, moving text frames, and changing spacing and entire sections to accommodate the text.
We use highlighted text boxes to draw attention to the articles we want to get the most attention. The boxes along with bold “Beware” headlines serve as visual cues to draw attention to the new content. New consumer trends and scams, like crowdfunding or juice jacking, are more timely, while some things, such as credit reports or medical billing are evergreen, always relevant and necessary.
From focus groups, we know that most people use the handbook to deal with one specific problem at a time. To account for this, we have several features to help readers navigate the book, including a table of contents, page headers, right hand page tabs, and an exhaustive index. We also incorporate cross references to other related sections (e.g. a cross reference to auto insurance from the buying a car section) to help readers find complementary information.
Since a pdf will be available on USA.gov, the CAH must also adhere to the Section 508 accessibility standards. Thankfully, we bake accessibility into the book layout as we go along. For example, the signature color of the book has to be dark enough so that gradations that are used as background shading in the boxes have enough of a contrast. This consistent use of design styles, master pages, content tags, alternate text for images, and other tools to make the reading order more logical when we export to PDF.
After the layout is complete, the book is peer reviewed for style consistency, grammar, language, clarity, layout, and a review of accuracy. I will spare you the in depth nitty-gritty details of checking page number references and creating an index. Just know that making cross referencing doable for readers and increasing the usability is something that people in the focus group liked about the book.
Marietta Jelks is editor-in-chief of the Consumer Action Handbook.