Besides - A Web Application to Promote Voting by Encouraging Civic Engagement with Verified, Bite-Sized Information

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India is the biggest and most complex democracy in the world. Besides.in by Within Reach tries to break down the information the Indian citizen needs, into fact-checked, bite-sized chunks, linked into engaging conversations. It was themed around the Indian Elections in 2019. Besides intends to spread across multiple subjects and issues, so that it evolves into a resource that anyone can pick up and search for a topic, so as to consume, share, and retain credible information for themselves.

I worked on the visual design, UI design, user research and usability testing of the app. Along with this, I learned how to use data analytics to derive insights to improve the web application's design, with the aim of increasing page views, improving the user experience and increasing the time spent on the website. Along with this, I helped create social media campaigns for the web application along with Anuja Pitre. Please do visit the Instagram page to see more work - @besides.in

The Landscape

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Fake news. Biased media. Political agendas. Echo chambers. Manufactured social media forwards. Sounds familiar? It’s a national, if not global phenomenon. How do we know if what we know is true? People are developing an appetite for fact-checked content and unbiased narratives. People want to know what the government is doing and what their own rights are. We want to be well informed before we make that critical voting
decision. But where is this information?


It’s either in our newspapers and TV screens, friends and family, peers and colleagues. The loudest voice is usually the one we hear. How do we approach conversations when we don’t know where to start?


We could do our research. But then that’s usually buried in huge, obscure documents stored in government databases. Wading through these to find the information we need is a daunting task. Few have the time, inclination, or patience to do this.

Gaps and Barriers

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After conducting surveys, interviews and group discussions, 3 problems were identified:


1. Dense Information

Information was either too difficult to unearth (too many clicks or paywalls) or too long and cumbersome to comb through. This leads to awareness levels being skewed among the populace, causing an asymmetry in knowledge.


2. Polarised Opinions

The news sources, for better or worse, are extremely polarising. This is not different from the conversations observed in people’s homes or offices. This leads to people feeling either overly confident and dogmatic in their viewpoint, or wary to arrive at their conclusions, let alone present them.


3. Diminishing Trust

When one comes across information, it is received with scepticism if it does not support one’s point of view, or validation when it does. There appears to be a persistent sense of cynicism or ignorance among people in terms of the appropriate steps in order to trust the information they consume or share. This is further compounded by the prevalence of ‘fake news and misinformation’.

The Web Application

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The following 5 principles were implemented through the web app - 

1. Primary Source

We look for the primary source of information at all times. If that is not available, and it is not from a reputed news outlet or scholarly journal, we will not consider it as something to include in our database.


2. Verifiability
This is crucial to our process. It is not to say that we are perfectly accurate, but rather, that we are verifiable, i.e. we have enabled the user to dig deeper and check for themselves, not to mention write to us if they come across something erroneous.


3. Unbiased
We are agnostic to the source of information, provided the fact meets the rigour of international fact-checking norms. We will look for multiple points of view, with the aim to represent as many communities and perspectives as possible.


4. Bite-sized
We aim to reduce the density and complexity of the text, by ensuring the length of the fact is the size of a tweet, consumable and shareable. We will also visualise or contextualise data as far as possible, in either the fact or the context, so as to assist the user in understanding the information.


5. Inter-connected
Finally, we stand for inter-connectedness. We recognise that information is only as good as what it's next to. From the source to the other perspectives to the larger picture. We do this by introducing two questions to the user, enabling them to dive deeper into what they find interesting. This ability, or agency, is a non-negotiable focus of ours, keeping us honest and keeping us from exploiting or manipulating

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The Rationale

The first 3 are principles are developed by Stanford History Education Group and further adopted by Poynter Institute (owners of Politifact and International Fact-Checking Network) for their MediaWise project, which is aimed at developing effective discernment between facts and fiction online.


While this is an important problem to tackle, it was decided that it will be wise to lean on the findings of experts who had already devoted time and research into the issue of misinformation.

The last 2 points are design principles Reach identified as experience benefits for our target user to (a) consume and retain the verifiable information and (b) feel interested to create/exploring their own unique journey.


Information and Tech

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Besides is a progressive web app for fact browsing developed by Nelkinda. The backend is developed in Golang and runs on the Google Cloud Platform. The frontend is developed in XHTML5.2, CSS3, and JavaScript and runs on any recent smartphone or web browser.
 

The Web Application

Fact Connections - The Besides backend rests on a massive database of research, and fact-checked facts, linked based on keywords into a conversational format. Based on the innate connection of the keywords, the user has full control of the conversation at every point in the Besides journey.


Interface - The UI for Besides is a spin on government documentation – stamp paper, currency notes, everything bureaucratic! While bureaucracy is usually associated with annoyance, we thought we’d breathe some life into the dated web styles and create a slick user experience with lightning-fast load times – why should bureaucrats have all the fun?!

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a screengrab of the opening page from besides.in

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a screengrab of a fact from besides.in

User Research and Usability Testing

Objectives of the User Research:

 

1. To determine if there is a motivation to learn about the India Electoral system.

2. To determine what the motivations are.

3. To probe deeper and understand the triggers

4. To understand how the user views civic engagement. (Do they perceive Elections within that gamut? How/ how not?) 

5. To understand how the user gathers information. (How do they share information they have?

Objectives of the Usability Test:

The usability test was intended to determine the user behaviour on the web app and determine the extent an interface facilitates the user’s ability to use the web app effectively. Our target user should be able to (a) consume and retain the verifiable information and (b) feel interested to create/explore their own unique journey. I had to: 

1. To identify usability deficiencies 

2. To identify friction points and confusing experiences

3. Identify bugs and issues 

4. To collect feedback, thoughts and reactions of the product

5. To identify user patterns, collect feedback, thoughts and reactions to concept and functionalities of Besides, as a platform

  • To observe and understand the lateral and vertical movement of users

  • To observe immediate reactions to facts and the overall experience 

A pattern had emerged while studying the analytics of the web app. 90% of the people stayed on the app for an average of 2 minutes. So, my goal was also to figure out why people weren't spending more time on it. 

Methodology:

I conducted a few activities depending on the goal. A contextual inquiry was conducted with 20 users who had already used the app and knew what is it to get general feedback and have a discussion with them. Participants were asked a set of questions about their experience. 

 

Then I conducted User Research and Usability Tests with 30 participants of the age group 20- 45. They were given 4 tasks to complete. These were recorded. I observed and later had a discussion with the participants. I wanted to collect personal opinions and emotional impressions about the concept. 

Synthesis:

Through interviews, countless discussions and tools we were able to synthesise all the information and choose critical issues to work on. Here are a few snapshots of research and synthesis. 

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User Comments on the Besides webapp

Record of responses from User Research

Record of observations from card sorting

Record of responses from Prototype Test 

Record of responses from open dialouge

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Identifying motivations to use the webapp

Identifying problems users face with the interface

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Usability research data collection

Usability research data collection

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The issue matrix

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Identified Critical Issues and Pain Points

Critical issue 1 - Users get bored and don't stay on the app for more than 3 minutes on average

Users want to read facts of a topic of their choice. Some users who for example are environment conscious will be more likely engaged in facts that are relayed to that topic. If there is a keywords section where people could choose the topic, it would give them more control. Or they can choose topics of their interests at the beginning. People were also keen on know about facts about their community, city or state. Making it more personalised. Giving them a little control in being able to choose the kind of facts they want to read. 

Critical issue 2 - A lot of facts have dense language

Users thought the language was too technical. Some of them also found facts to be too long. They didn't understand a few phrases and short forms that were used. This is a problem because we want the users to retain what they have read and use it in daily conversations. We need to make sure facts are more concise with a simpler language

Critical issue 3 - Users are confused about what they are supposed to be doing

Users need directions on how the app functions. When users open the app for the first time, they are lost and have to figure out for themselves how it works. This causes confusion. People are also confused with the purpose of the app.

Critical issue 4 - Users want to read the facts and information that is more relevant to current news

A lot of users mentioned that the fake news that circulates is usually about current news and that is what they would want to find out or read more about. 

Critical issue 5 - Users want to a choice of selecting the topic of the facts they are reading

People were also keen on know about facts about their community, city or state. They also had their own preferences on the topic they wanted to read more about. Example, environment or LGBTQ rights etc. making it more personalised. 

Campaign Design

In the process of launching the web app, we made a concerted effort to leverage existing tools of engagement, most pertinently, Instagram. The prevalence we observed in terms of our intended user groups and their average time spent on Instagram, led us to prepare a social media campaign that worked to build awareness on Besides.

We designed 5 different social media campaigns. Here are a few examples. You can find the rest of them on @besides.in - 

1. General Information about the working of the web app

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2. The "How do I?" series, which answered doubts specific to voting in the general election 

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3. A series aimed at informing citizens about their rights and major facts regarding the elections

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4. A series that compares the manifestos of various political parties and thus informs citizens about their parties stance on various subjects.

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5. A series that breaks down the different phases of the election

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Checkout the rest of the campaigns on our instagram page - https://www.instagram.com/besides.in/ ​

Feel free to reach out for a collaboration or a conversation!

© Aishwarya Jare