Mary Ann Petti, Public Health, MPH '12

Profile by Alexandria McGowan, '14

Mary Ann Petti, ’12, earned her MPH degree from the School of Public Health and Health Sciences. She currently works as a User Experience Specialist at CommunicateHealth, a Northampton-based health education and communication firm specializing in improving health literacy through user-centered design, policy, research, and content development. Alexandria McGowan, ’14, recently graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Public Health and worked as a Public Health Peer Advisor during her senior year.

Mary Ann Petti graduated from UMass Amherst in 2009 with a Bachelor’s degree in Communication. Spurred by her interest in using the power of technology to improve health and wellness, she returned for her Master of Public Health (MPH) degree. In 2012, Mary Ann obtained her MPH in Community Health Education.

While a graduate student in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences, Mary Ann completed her practicum in Novgorod, Russia, which turned out to be one of her more memorable public health experiences. She and her fellow graduate students in the Russian exchange program wrote and hoped to implement a social marketing campaign, which proved to be a difficult but important learning experience. The group conducted qualitative interviews to understand the community’s attitudes toward drinking, alcohol, and substance laws and learned that the program administrators were not able to implement a harm reduction campaign as the UMass students had hoped. In the end, and despite the project’s many challenges, Mary Ann feels that they all benefited from the interchange of ideas and public health knowledge.

During her graduate studies, Mary Ann researched CommunicateHealth, a Northampton-based health education and communication firm, as a potential place to conduct an independent study program. The company, which specializes in improving health literacy and disseminating health-related information, united both of her interests, communication and public health. It turned out to be a perfect match, and worked out so well that she was offered a job as a User Experience Specialist after graduation.

Working at CommunicateHealth has led Mary Ann to become a passionate advocate for the users of a website or tool. She prioritizes the user first when thinking about a campaign or writing copy for a website or other media. She and her team primarily focus on how to make information easier to understand and more accessible for everyone by making design and usability improvements to whatever health product they are working on. She works with web developers and designers, as well as the users, to gain an understanding of how best to improve client websites. Mary Ann attributes her MPH for her ability to understand people’s goals and motivations and also her ability to communicate health-related information to the masses.

One of her favorite projects at CommunicateHealth was a mobile app her team built for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. In the case of a catastrophic event, a Family Assistance Center (FAC) serves as a hub for identifying missing persons. CommunicateHealth designed a mobile app that would help ease communication obstacles between FAC center staff and clients with communication barriers. The app was developed with a user-centered design process, meaning the team made sure users were involved in every step. Images and icons act as visual aids, which eliminate the need for reading and verbal communication. Mary Ann led user research on the project and tested the app with both professionals and people with communication disorders to assess effectiveness.

CommunicateHealth recently signed a five-year contract with the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion to provide communication and web support for their initiatives including Healthy People 2020 and healthypeople.gov, healthfinder.gov, health.gov, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and the Physical Activity Guidelines. Mary Ann is the task lead for Healthy People 2020 activities and is currently leading redesigns of interactive features across the site, as well as user research across the contract. The company continues to grow at a rapid pace, which presents tremendous opportunities for its employees, but also challenges including a heavy workload.

“It is an exciting work environment because it is such a busy time for us, and my day-to-day is always changing,” she says. “It is a small company, which gives employees a great deal of autonomy.”

To those students who might be interested in pursuing an internship or career with CommunicateHealth, she adds, “Apply! CommunicateHealth is always looking for people interested in health with a variety of backgrounds, whether it be design, web development or public health! We’re always looking for smart go-getters with a passion for better health products and user-friendly technology.”

Additionally, Mary Ann encourages students to take initiative and seek out opportunities.

“Don’t wait for opportunities to come to you. You have to make them happen for yourself!” she says. Mary Ann is a perfect example of that, having set up her own independent study, and now working at a fast-growing company doing what she loves.