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Fight Echo Chambers With Better UX

Four Design Techniques for More Inclusive Communities

Nikki Clark
Mar 11, 2016 · 7 min read

Here’s a situation you’re probably familiar with: your aunt/uncle/second cousin joins Facebook, you feel socially obligated to “friend” them, and now have to deal with their barrage of political rants that make you squirm. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, the topics you carefully avoid at holidays now show up one-sidedly in your feed when you least expect them. At some point, you start to associate Facebook with negative feelings and awkward interactions.

Designers are then tasked to fix this issue. These designers know the value of empathy, the importance of recognizing users individually and solving for their problems. They want users to feel happy while using the service. The solution? Build an algorithm that “learns” what people like to see, and cater the content they see to maximize what makes them happy. So Facebook filters out that little bit of political dissent from popping up unexpectedly in your day, and instead shows more posts from friends who care about the same issues as you do. Isn’t that the kind thing to do?

You see where this is going: eventually, you start to find yourself surrounded by yes-men with similar opinions, and the feed starts to build an echo chamber which slowly looks less and less like the world it was originally meant to mirror.

Echo chambers aren’t an artifact of design neglect, they are the outcome of UX best practices.

As designers, in trying not to make decisions for our users, we’ve accidentally made a very large one.

If we truly want to give power to our users, it’s only fair to give them the power to opt out. This doesn’t mean forcing them out, it means building the tools and environments they can use if they want to.

To empower users to escape their own echo chambers, I’ve been thinking about four main techniques designers can apply:

  • Expose Groups
  • Curate Wisely
  • Encourage Conversation
  • Give Underserved Communities a Platform

Let me break these down.

1. Expose Groups

Lots of designed experiences already use groups to sort users and personalize content. Whether a user is in one group or twenty, and whether the groups are formally named or not, groups are an easy way for a experience to provide “smart” suggestions with relatively little effort.

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I picked my least embarrassing Netflix groups for this example.

Netflix does this well: when you’ve been added to the “Action & Adventure Movie” group, you can see the top titles suggested for group members. And because the groups you’re assigned to show up on your homepage, it’s easy to understand how Netflix is categorizing you.

But then, this happens:

Action & Adventure movies show up on your homepage -> You watch more Action & Adventure movies -> You’re added to similar groups -> The process starts over -> You are now forever watching Action & Adventure movies

What if you’d like to start watching travel documentaries? Or foreign films? In streamlining the product, Netflix has removed ways to explore groups you’re not a member of. Sure, you could use the search, but a blank form field is a high barrier to entry when you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for. No wonder, then, the social explosion around the discovery of “hidden Netflix codes” as a way to view groups you’re not a part of.

Being able to see other people’s groups is surprisingly engaging: it allows users to explore new interests in a “safe” environment. For groups that don’t include sensitive data, like categories of content, music genres, or likes, giving users access also allows them a lot of power to explore new interests.

Takeaway: Allow users to see how they have been grouped, and to explore groups they are not a part of. Displaying the groups used doesn’t have to clutter the interface, as it can be offered as a secondary means of exploration.

2. Curate Wisely

Not everyone wants to hunt through hundreds of hidden Netflix codes. For those that don’t, it is common for algorithms or curators to analyze a user’s behavior to craft recommended content.

Recommended content is almost always based on what users already like. If Spotify knows a user likes HipHop, it will share new HipHop tracks in their Discover Weekly playlist. If Google Now sees a user searching for polling locations, it will provide regular updates on the primaries and debate schedules.

But what if content suggestions were intentionally curated to encourage exploration?

We already have the tools we need to do this well. Finding existing trends in data could help reveal areas where encouraging exploration would be the most successful. Data trends could also help pinpoint commonalities across different types of content. Our Spotify HipHop listener might enjoy Alternative R&B suggestions more than Country ones. Maybe an indie film director finds common ground in a designer’s process or workflow. Maybe a scientist finds commonalities in an artist’s gut instinct.

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The Great Discontent has been successful with a wide variety of creative individuals because the content focuses on commonalities across disciplines. Who knew a sculptor would have things in common with a fashion designer? Oh right, the humans curating it did.

The most effective way for this to work would be for algorithms to pinpoint connections, then humans could interpret them. Not all data trends are inspiring, and algorithms will find useless correlations. With the data sorting out of the way, however, humans are free to pattern-match and provide data-backed recommendations for other users.

Takeaway: Use data trends and human curators to encourage exploration in new ways that are likely to be of interest to the user. Start with what users have in common and go from there.

3. Encourage Conversation

Facilitating genuine conversation between strangers can be one of the most effective tools to help users break out of their echo chambers. As one might expect, unfortunately, this is easier said than done.

One technique for doing this is encouraging conversation in public groups around a common, generic interest. The more diverse voices available, the better. This could be groups for neighborhoods, schools, or even cat videos. Moderation is important to keep these diverse crowds civil and positive. If a user is actively looking to break out of their echo chamber, these public spaces can be used as a safe environment for them to test the waters.

Another technique is to have a more formal question-and-answer style conversation, like Reddit’s AMAs (Ask Me Anything.) Usually in this scenario, the person answering questions from the crowd has some sort of unique life circumstance. The forced structure in this case may make it easier for hesitant users to participate.

These techniques are most effective if the user is getting extra value out of the service by engaging. With that said, consider the type of community and motivation of the users before encouraging conversation. Strangers bonding over a cancer diagnosis are likely to get value out of conversation, whereas strangers who happen to both wear red shoes probably will not.

Takeaway: Encourage conversation between different types of users. Build a community of respect and moderate consistently, and build “safe” spaces for conversation to happen. Discourage cliques. Find ways that this type of conversation is valuable to users.

4. Give Underserved Communities a Platform

Exploration can also happen on it’s own if you set the stage right. If designers work to provide a platform for smaller, underserved communities, their message can be amplified to people who might not otherwise hear it. Encouraging this behavior helps build a culture that values open-mindedness and discourages echo-chambers, without the designer stepping in to play god.

For this to work effectively, the designer must:

  1. Help the average user locate these underserved communities
  2. Establish a code of conduct to protect potentially vulnerable groups

A code of conduct should include a combination of norms, written terms of use, swift action to remove and punish harassment, and potentially, additional “powers” granted to the vulnerable to protect themselves.

The podcasting world is a great example of this working well. Buzzfeed’s Another Round podcast, which is hosted by Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton and focuses on race and gender issues, has a large and diverse audience.

“We get a lot of emails white listeners, that say, ‘you know what I’m just so glad to be able to sit in on these conversations… I’ve never had access to them before.” — Tracy & Heben, Another Round

Takeaway: Find underserved communities and highlight their work. Designers have the power to make niche messages accessible to the masses. Let users choose which communities matter to them.

This is Just a Start

If we truly care about our users, building paths out of the experiences we’ve designed are necessary. As a community, I’d love to see more discussion around trusting and empowering our users to shape their own experiences. Giving them the tools to do the job is just the first step.

Do you have other UX strategies for breaking down echo chambers? I’d love to hear them. Hit me up on Twitter: @nikkic1ark

If you like this, I’d really appreciate a ❤ to help other people like you find it more easily. If you hate this, that’s cool too. We can still be friends.

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