User Research, Visual Identity, Mobile and Desktop Experience, Animated Mockup
An experimental news platform designed to expose users to different perspectives
Attempting to dissolve the filter bubble of the current society, Multi News is a news aggregator platform that delivers users news from different perspectives. It is the result of two different explorations that aimed to balance the cognitive load and confirmation bias with targeting algorithm. It was an individual design project at UC Berkeley in the fall of 2018.
Confirmation bias + personalized content = filter bubbles and echo chamber
“Today’s media landscape gives people new ways to hear only the things they want to hear. When confronted with ideas that challenge their beliefs, many react with outrage, censorship — and recently, cries of “‘fake news.’”
— Wisecrack, How Fahrenheit 451 Predicted Fake News – How Did We Get Here?
With daily occurrences of information overload and limited cognitive bandwidth, people have to filter their information consumption in order to allocate energy for the other tasks in their life. Confirmation bias is one of the natural information filters for humans. With confirmation bias, people tend to seek information that supports their hypotheses or beliefs. Conversely, they tend to avoid information that opposes their original viewpoints. In 1996, MIT researchers Marshall Van Alstyne and Erik Brynjolfsson warned of a potential dark side to our newly interconnected world:
“Individuals empowered to screen out material that does not conform to their existing preferences may form virtual cliques, insulate themselves from opposing points of view, and reinforce their biases. Internet users can seek out interactions with like-minded individuals who have similar values, and thus become less likely to trust important decisions to people whose values differ from their own.”
With curated algorithms that show users content that they might be interested in based on their browsing history, the online world has been more personalized for everyone. Filter bubbles that are based on the users’ profile and behaviors are created for all online users. That being said, the users “don’t decide what gets in. And more importantly, [they] don’t actually see what gets edited out.” Thus, people should be mindful of the filter bubble that “surround[s] us in information that tends to support what we already believe.”
A news platform that reduces the filter bubble effect
Because of confirmation bias is human nature, building a product that provides the users with different opinions would be difficult. It increases the conflicts and frictions during their information consumption.
However, I think the vision of a more coherent society is worth exploring despite the difficulty of the project. I would like to design a news platform experience that reduces the effect of the filter bubble and exposes users to opposing perspectives according to their reading behaviors. This particular project would be my first attempt at solving the echo chamber/filter bubble effect.
How might we design a news platform the expose users to different perspectives?
Other factors of the filter bubble effect
In addition to the cause of filter bubbles and echo chamber, I researched other reasons that contribute to the problem. I also studied people’s news reading habits to discover pain points and insights for such issue.
Preliminary Research Insight
Fact-checking is not the solution
When President Trump was fact-checked for multiple tweets or claims, his supporters were not swayed by the accuracy of the messages. Moreover, phrases like “alternative facts” were used to defend fact-checking. For some people, facts don’t matter. It’s emotions that drive decisions that seem ludicrous even after being disputed with facts.
Anchoring effect - the order of information matters
“Typically, the first bit of information we receive becomes an anchor and all future evaluations are based on this anchor piece of information.” As a result of the anchoring effect or cognitive bias, it would take much longer for readers to adjust their existing opinions even when they are incorrect.
Looking at current reading habits
People’s news consumption habits have adjusted over time to technological innovations. In an era filled with information overload and fake news, some reading habits become more apparent among modern news consumers.
Preliminary Research Insight
Rise of news-reading on mobile devices
“Mobile devices have become one of the most common ways Americans get news, outpacing desktop or laptop computers,” according to a Pew Research Center survey.
The habit of skimming through headlines
Readers both scan and read deeply rather than reading from page to page in a newspaper. Given how much information people are exposed to in a day, they can only invest in a finite amount of effort and time into news content. People scan through headlines and learn more about a topic they are interested in. By choosing what to understand in-depth, readers are less likely to read articles from different perspectives.
Increase in social media news consumption versus direct news site
Reading news directly from publishers website remains the most common news consumption pattern. Yet, users get their news from social media more often than before. Moreover, the number of news consumption from direct sources or social media are nearly identical.
How do existing news platforms deal with perspectives?
I have also analyzed both major news platforms and similar products that tackle the filter bubble effect to see how the current industry approach the issue.
Similar in quantity but different in perspective indications
All competitors present multiples reports on a single topic. The primary difference between these two types of news aggregators is how they label the perspectives. For Google News and Apple News, they don’t display the article’s viewpoint. However, readers can filter their preferred news reports via the name of the publishers. Meanwhile, Perspecs and The Perspective explicitly indicate the perspective of each story.
A mobile-first news aggregator
From the insights of people’s reading habits, I decided to design a mobile news aggregator according to the increasing mobile news consumption as well as controlling the experience in a direct news platform.
Disregarding other factors to focus on the core interactions
Focusing on challenging confirmation bias and preventing anchoring effect in three weeks, I have neglected the following factors. However, I would involve these factors in the future interactions of this product.
- Fake news and fact-checking
- Business model
- Nuance of perspectives
- Social media preview
Be mindful of cognitive overload and the anchoring effect
From behavior research and competitive analysis, I synthesized the following principles to guide my design process:
Balancing between challenging confirmation bias and cognitive overload
One of the significant factors that cause confirmation bias is the limited cognitive bandwidth to deal with a large amount of information. Therefore, while challenging existing reading behavior, I have to be cautious about managing users’ cognitive load. To iterate the balance throughout the design process, I created the prototypes in higher fidelity with actual content to better grasp the users’ reactions during usability testing.
Neutral visual presentation to minimize the anchoring effect
Knowing that the anchoring effect is a significant influence in news consumption, I wanted to make sure that the visual design and the layout of the product minimize as much bias as possible.
Exploring ways to present multiple perspectives
To brainstorm ideas to expose opposing perspectives to users, I sketched out different concepts on papers and presented them to other classmates for feedback.
Preventing anchoring effect via limited color palette
Meanwhile, I also developed a design system that aims to present perspectives as neutral as possible. Because any color could trigger users’ previous experience, I limited the color palette to only black, gray, and white for this product.
Dissolving the filter bubble via an “I Disagree“ button
Knowing people read based on confirmation bias, I designed an experience where users can actively “disagree” with what they read on the platform. Even though users might end up reading the articles that support their beliefs, they are exposed to opposing perspectives. Furthermore, their clicks on the “I Disagree.” button would provide data to train the targeted algorithm to dissolve the filter bubble.
Logic of "I Disagree"
Initial User Flow
The homepage of the platform regularly shows the opposing perspectives to the users based on their browsing history. Users can disagree with the given perspective after reading the headlines or the abstract. After disagreeing with the given viewpoint, they can read and select reports that are more aligned with their views as their reasons to object to the original perspective.
A neutral headline of a topic
Through whether curation or automation, the headline presents the unbiased view of the subject.
Curated perspective on the topic
Presenting a single perspective, which usually does not align with the user’s views according to their browsing history, a headline of an article is featured for the specific topic. The article will not be labeled with any publishers to affect users’ perceptions at first sight.
To disagree or to read more about the topic
Users can choose to read more about how the perspective covers the subject, or they can disagree with the perspective. Disagreeing with the initial perspective, users will proceed to other news reports that might better align with their opinions.
Intrigued but concerned about practicality
From the user tests with people at the School of Information, most people found this concept intriguing, but they also wondered about the practicality of the product. Some of the feedback talked about this user flow might be “too cognitive load heavy.” Some users concerned that “people might be worried about collecting their opinions.” Most importantly, this product required more testing with the target users when a user said:
“I don’t know how other people will feel, but if I say I disagree I probably want to be over and done with the article.”
Multiple scannable perspectives at first sight
To mitigate cognitive overload while presenting a more comprehensive view on a topic, I designed a layout that allows users to grasp different perspectives from the homepage. Similar yet different to the industry-standard presentation, these perspectives are not only shown without the label of their publishers but also randomly ordered to minimize the anchoring effect. Before reading a specific view, users are provided with a neutral headline as well as a section for neutral context extracted from all reports on the topic page.
Logic of the Final Approach
Final User Flow
A scannable homepage featuring diverse perspectives
- Scannable perspective at first sight
Deciding when to present multiple perspectives is essential to the project because 69% of people scan through their daily news headlines more than once per day. Therefore, I designed an experience where users can scan through different perspective right from the homepage before they dive deep into any particular point of view.
Constructing an impartial coverage
- Understanding the context before reading perspectives
Before reading different news reports in detail, users can read about the common knowledge (assuming there is common knowledge) for better context.
- Arranging perspectives in randomized order
To reduce the anchoring effect, I listed all reports of the subject in random order under the context section. Even though the listing order might still affect users’ perceptions, showing different coverages on a single page allows users to grasp the general sense of the topic.
Minimizing existing opinions on original sources
- Removing the publisher from the articles
Through visual design, I wanted to reduce users’ prejudice toward publishers from the opposing perspective. Taking away the colors and logos of the publishers, I assumed that the users would be more focused on the content and be less likely to be influenced by the image of the sources. However, this prototype is designed for accountable publishers and disregarding the possibility of fake news.
More aligned with current behavior while worrying about cognitive load
Overall, people seemed to like this approach more than the “I Disagree” concept because the navigation is similar to how they currently navigate news platforms. Some people liked the design that forces the users to read everything when labels and publishers are covered. On the other hand, they worried that users might be lazy and would return to reading only their preferred perspectives.
“Visually, this is a fantastic design — seeing how the intention of neutrality comes through in the typography, layout, and color choice was fantastic. The basic interaction works as well — switching up POV ordering is a great idea. I’m not sure you answered the deeper question of whether this approach will have the intended effect — but that’s fine for this project.”
— James Reffell, Instructor & Design Director at Clever
Designing for behavior change is difficult
Creating a product to change the current user behavior is harder than I expected. The result of this particular iteration does not offer a significant increase in value for people to change. Perhaps another way of developing this product is to incrementally alter the news consumption over time to achieve the intended result.
The value of the product has to align with users goal
Designing a product that goes against human nature is unintuitive. Unless I find a way to create value such as convenience or other incentives, users will probably not incorporate this product in their daily life for this version of the product.
User testing is important, even without the target users
Throughout the user testing of my exploration, many users gave me insights that I didn’t think of at the beginning. For me to design such a content-heavy product, it was beneficial to observe how people navigate the prototype to reevaluate my hypothesis.
Moving forward in the world of filter bubbles
I will continue to iterate this product at the School of Information in the future. I want to tackle the issue from another point of view with additional practical considerations.
Different approaches to the intended target audience
This product might work for the people who are aware of the echo chamber effect and consciously read from multiple perspectives. On the other hand, it might not be as impactful to those people who either are unaware of the situation or refuse to change. Thus, I will try to design other ways to make those target users reevaluate their beliefs with different value propositions.
Factor in more practical considerations
I will also consider more factors, such as a sustainable business model or the possibility of fake news that I disregarded in this project. I’d love to continue exploring more ideas to tackle such a relevant issue in the current or future society.
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