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Designing for Disagreement

July 2017


The internet has brought the world to our doorsteps and provided us all a powerful filter for what we let into our lives, giving user experience designers a major role in how our online lives are shaped. This realization led me to Copenhagen in July 2017, where I participated in the workshop Designing for Disagreement at Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design. Our instructors delivered lectures on behavioral design, psychology, and ethics in the mornings. In the afternoons my team and I used service prototyping techniques to test new ideas for civic interaction. 


The workshop structure:


I was drawn to this workshop because our society increasingly lives online and we disagree now more than ever.


Online conversations have skyrocketed and the expectations of them have changed. Facebook, one of the main places where discussion, sharing, and consumption happens online, now has 1.7+ billion users. We live online so fully, that even when we disagree, we don't sign off. Instead we seek out places where we do agree, like closed threads and private groups—both Messenger and Groups have become stand-alone apps.

In 2017, personalized digital feeds are become so tailored and specific, that it's almost like our feeds are closed groups. We can block, unfriend or unfollow whoever we choose. We don't have to listen to anyone we don't want to. Bottom line is that we're always going to disagree, that will never change.

But what if online interactions encouraged users to disagree in more productive ways?


My team and I were tasked with designing new visions of sharing, empathy, and engagement, and we got to choose our topic. After mapping out many possibilities, we honed in on online bullying. 

We spent the majority of our time out in Copenhagen talking to people about their experience with seeing or experiencing online bullying. Each day we brought our findings back and synthesized them together. Our key goal for the class was to craft a hypothesis statement about how we could design for disagreements happening related to our topic and pressure test it with as many people as we could. 


The structure we followed for forming a hypothesis looked like this: 


We mapped out all interview results, formed themes, and generated ideas: 

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We decided to pursue the idea of asking bullies to stop and think, and started sketching out and testing ideas for designing to encourage a change in behavior rather than forcing one. We learned from behavioral science that users respond better to an opportunity to make a different decision than a punishment. 

The idea we chose to test is a NLP filter that detects potentially abusive language and asks teens if they want to post it. Nothing will stop them from posting, but if abusive language has been detected, they have to wait 5 minutes.


In testing, we received a range of responses. Some thought that it would be successful because it would give people a chance to stop and consider their actions. Others thought it would only delay the inevitable, and perhaps even anger online bullies and result in more bullying posts. We used paper prototypes to talk to a half dozen teenagers.  

"If you use a 5-minute timer, decent people will not post and the number of bullying and harassing postings will increase relatively, won't they? That kind of guy will post anyhow."

"This will give people a chance to stop and think, so it could stop some bullying. I think people would be surprised to see this."


On the last day of the program we all shared our work with students in other workshops, and I definitely found some time to enjoy Denmark. I truly valued the lectures on behavioral science and psychology, and how much my teachers encouraged us to challenge and be rigorous about the research process, even though we only had a week. Sometimes in design, it feels easy to glom onto a research insight if you're excited about it, and this workshop helped me learn how to step back and be honest about what we were really hearing during field interviews. 


My biggest takeaways

Don't take it a prompt at face value. When designing to solve a complex problem, look for initial biases in how problems are framed, like word choice, tone, body language. 

Think about supporting an idea rather than loving it. Adopting this mindset helped me from getting excited about one idea then just assuming we should carry on with it. 

Copenhagen rocks. Danish people are incredibly nice and in my experience, willing to talk to a stranger for 10 minutes 100% of the time, even if that stranger is asking about a potentially divisive topic.  

Be consistent on word choice. Vocabulary around this topic varies widely. We used the words bullying, harassment and trolling interchangeably. Some people had not heard of the term trolling and thought we were talking about the 'live under a bridge' kind of trolls. If continuing with this research, we would need to devise a more rational approach to word choice to ensure conflating terms didn't influence data.

I am assuming...Keep an open record of assumptions, like an accountability record. This will help separate what is rooted in user research and what you think you should do. Beware logical fallacies in the design process. For example, it's easy to allow the bandwagon fallacy to drive ideas: one person says they does this, so it must be how all users who feel this way would act. Or the genetic fallacy, which would lead to giving certain user research results more credibility than others based on who said them (e.g. not taking a young user seriously). Check out the logical fallacy chart: