Our glossary contains common words and phrases related to health literacy, user-centered design, and health education. The definitions are tailored to the work we do at CommunicateHealth.



Easy to act on. Actionable information tells people what to do and how to do it. Content that is actionable focuses on behavior.


App (short for application) is a software program that has a specific purpose. Users often download apps on their computer or mobile device.


Behavior change

When a person changes her routine so a new action becomes part of everyday life. Examples in health include adding more physical activity into your day (like taking the stairs instead of the elevator) and washing your hands before you prepare food.

Behavioral economics

How a consumer’s beliefs, values, emotions, and thinking influence their behavior and decision-making.


Card sorting

An easy way for people to show you how they think content should be organized. This method helps you to understand a user’s mental model, which provides insight on the information architecture of a website, app, or online tool. Card sorting can be done in person, using actual cards, or virtually using a variety of online card-sorting programs.


Channels are the mode in which a message is communicated. Channels include Twitter, conversations with your doctor, radio, and brochures.


A qualitative research method where participants use images to express how they feel about an issue or topic. Participants select abstract images and then explain to the moderator their reason for selecting it. Collaging allows participants to express feelings and thoughts that may otherwise be difficult to articulate with words.


The process of expressing information — through words, sounds, images, or other means — to someone else.


A person or organization that uses a good or service, including information.

Content audit

A high-level look at what content is on a website, how it's written, and whether it’s useful. If you’re redesigning your site, this may be a helpful step if you plan to keep a lot of your existing content. 

Content development

Writing and preparing content for publication.

Content inventory

A nitty-gritty log of everything on a website, and a plan for what to do with it in the future. It’s a crucial step in the website redesign process. A content inventory is all about figuring out what pages to keep and what to get rid of.

Content management

The systematic process for storing, indexing, updating, and publishing content on a website. The purpose of content management is to create and maintain up-to-date high-quality web content. Content management often involves a team of people, including content developers, content editors, content publishers, and site administrators.

Content strategy

A plan for creating and maintaining content. Content strategy also identifies how content will bridge the gap between user needs and the author’s goals.

Content syndication

Content syndication is a strategy to reuse and integrate content on multiple sites.

Curse of knowledge

Knowing things that another person doesn’t and forgetting what it’s like to not have that knowledge — which makes it harder to think about problems from the other person’s perspective and explain things in a manner that’s easy to understand.


Environmental scan

A formative research method which involves a review of existing tools, resources, or information. This is usually the first step in the process before designing or developing a new product.



Using criteria to limit the display of data to show only the information you want or need.

Financial literacy

A person’s ability to understand and use financial information to make decisions and manage money effectively.

Formative research

Research that is done to gain a deeper understanding of your target audience. This is done before you begin designing or developing a tool, website, messages, or other content to make sure you fully understand the target audience and their needs. Common formative research methods include focus groups, in-depth interviews, collaging, needs assessments, and environmental scans.


Health education

The science and practice of improving people’s health through education and intervention. Health educators encourage healthy lifestyles and wellness by increasing knowledge, developing skills, and advocating for policies that promote individual and community health.

Health insurance literacy

The ability to find, understand, and use information related to health insurance to make decisions about health care.

Health literacy

Health literacy is a person’s ability to understand and use health information. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines health literacy as "the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand the basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions."



A visual representation of information or data. Infographics present information to audiences quickly and directly, and can help people to understand and digest information through data visualization.

Information architecture

Information architecture is a fancy term for how content is organized and labeled on a website, app, or online tool. The goal is to organize content to be easy to find. Good information architecture reflects the way people think.

Iterative design

Iterative design can be summed up in 3 words: test, revise, repeat. Iterative design is the process of continually testing and improving your communication product.



The key takeaway from your communication product (like a brochure or webpage). Good writing should have both a topic (like "lead poisoning") and a clear main message (like "prevent lead poisoning by having your home tested for lead").


Information that helps search engines find content online. Types of metadata include tags, titles, descriptions, and key words. Sometimes metadata is hidden (like key words) and sometimes it’s a visible part of the search process (like the title and description that displays in a Google search result).

Mobile-device / technology

Mobile devices are portable, meaning they are easy to carry and move. People use mobile devices like cell phones and tablets to access data and information in different places.

The design and structure of a website that allows a user to move from one page to another or within a page by using menus, links, buttons, and toolbars. Navigation helps a user know where she is on a site and how to go somewhere else.


The ability to understand and work with numbers. From a health literacy perspective, numeracy is essential for understanding things like food labels, medicine prescriptions, and blood sugar measurements.


Patient engagement

Playing an active role in your health care. Patient engagement means patients can advocate for themselves effectively when it comes to health care decisions.

Patient messaging (consumer messaging)

Delivering health messages directly to patients or consumers. Consumer messages provide information, resources, or tools related to prevention, treatment, medical care, insurance, and other health-related topics. Organizations that deliver consumer messages include hospitals, health insurers, and public health agencies. Ideally, messages are tailored to the recipient’s age, gender, or health status — the more tailored the message, the more effective it will be.


A representative user that’s based on data, including target audience interviews. Personas help content developers and designers write and design with their audience’s needs in mind.

Plain language

A strategy for making information easier to find, understand, and use. Plain language techniques include using the active voice, short sentences, bulleted lists, and everyday language.


The underlying computer system on which other applications and programs can be built, developed, and run.

Population health

The health outcomes of a specific group of people — broken down by place, ethnicity, age, or other characteristics.


An individual with general or specific knowledge of a particular topic. Health and public health professionals often have moderate to high health literacy, but often suffer from the curse of knowledge.


A rough draft of your website or product. Prototypes are used during the product development stage to get initial feedback from users. Prototypes can be simple sketches on paper or clickable models that let users view several screens of web content.

Public health

The science and practice of promoting health and preventing disease on a community or population level.



How easy it is to read written text. Readability depends on both content (like how complex the words and sentences are) and design (like the size of the font and how long the lines are).

Readability formulas

Mathematical formulas that measure readability, or how easy it is to read written text. Commonly used readability formulas include SMOG, FRY, and Flesch-Kincaid. Typical readability formulas count the number of syllables in a word and the number of words in a sentence. Readability formulas don’t measure or predict how well your intended audience will understand the material.

Responsive [design]

A way of building websites so they automatically adapt to various screen sizes, like laptops, tablets, and phones.


Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a strategy to make your website or content easier to find by making it appear in relevant searches on Google and other search engines.


A person’s assessment or belief about her ability to succeed in accomplishing a task. If someone’s self-efficacy is high, they’re more likely to do the behavior. Breaking behaviors into smaller, more realistic steps can help increase self-efficacy.

Serif / sans-serif

A serif is the term used to describe the "feet" or notches at the endpoints of a given letter or character. The thickness of the lines used to make each letter can differ with serif fonts whereas sans-serif fonts are the same thickness throughout each letter.

serif font vs sans-serif font

Social determinants of health

The physical, social, and environmental factors that affect health and health outcomes.

Social marketing

The application of commercial marketing strategies to the planning, implementation, and evaluation of programs intended to promote voluntary behavior change in target audiences.



Creating content based on specific characteristics of your target audience. Tailoring makes content a good "fit" for the audience.

Target audience

The people you want to communicate your message to.


The mood of a written or verbal communication, which conveys emotion. Determined by word choice and punctuation. Examples of tone include: supportive, excited, sympathetic, motivational. Note: One voice can communicate in various tones.


What a piece of writing is about (like "lead poisoning").

Tree testing

A usability research method to evaluate how easy or difficult it is to find specific content within a website, app, or online tool. Sometimes called reverse card sorting, this method allows users to show you how easily (or not) they can find content within an existing information architecture.


Universal precautions

In the field of health communication, the practice of assuming every person has low health literacy skills. Create communications that everyone can use and understand regardless of assumptions about that person’s health literacy skills.


How easy a product, tool, or website is to use and how well it matches up with the user’s needs.

Usability testing

A method to gather feedback about a user’s experience with your website, tool, or product. It can be conducted in person or online. Usability testing can be moderated (guided by a moderator), or ummoderated (self-guided by the user). The moderator or the software gathers information about how the user interacts with the website, product, or tool and notes where the user has issues or experiences difficulty.

User-centered design (UCD)

A method for developing websites and products that involves users (or the target audience) as co-creators in every step of the design process. User-centered design includes understanding user requirements, testing the product with users, and incorporating their feedback to refine your product.


Vector file

A computer image that is stored as lines rather than a series of dots. Vector images can be scaled up or down without losing quality. Vector file formats include SVG, AI, and EPS.

Raster vs. Vector images


The unique personality of an organization or brand, as reflected in written or verbal communication. Determined by vocabulary, grammar, and sentence structure. Examples of voice include: professional, casual, authoritative, formal. Note: The tone of a brand or organization’s communications may vary, but voice stays consistent across communications.


White space

The space between lines of text or paragraphs, around images, in the margins of the page, and in headers and footers. White space allows for visual separation of design and text elements on a page — and makes things easier to read. Use it liberally!


A stand-alone application that can be integrated into third-party websites. Widgets typically perform a single or simple function such as generating localized weather reports, customizable stock market reports, or user-specific calculations.


A basic blueprint or skeletal framework that outlines a website, app, or widget. Wireframes offer a bare-bones depiction of layout and navigational framework. They focus on structure, behavior, and priority of content.

Note: If you think we should include additional terms or definitions, let us know. Contact us at