Strange Bedfellows: User Experience and Fake News

At a time when we can’t seem to agree on anything, there is one apparent area of consensus: fake news is a problem.

Whether your concern lies with the mainstream media or fringe outlets like Brietbart, fake news is breeding distrust, threatening our institutions, and both indirectly and in some cases directly threatening people’s lives. Along with this consensus view that fake news is a problem, much of the discussion about solutions focuses on the producers of this content and the platforms that deliver it. The idea is that we need to fix the problem of the supply of fake news. We’d argue that in a world of free speech that may be an impossible task. Instead we should focus on demand, and specifically how a shift in how we think about user experience might help to alleviate the problem.

Best practices in user experience have helped to create an environment where fake news has flourished. Whether it’s the ecommerce “people who liked this also liked” concept that helped to build Amazon into a retail power, or the psychology behind gathering “likes” on Facebook that’s made the platform a dopamine-releasing addiction, user experiences that feel frictionless and that tap into our behaviors and desires as humans are incredibly effective. News media has learned from Amazon and increasingly relied on Facebook to maintain and grow its business.

And when news is more focused on consumption and not education, personal or civic betterment these models work. Frictionless experiences are don’t ask much of as users. Their built-in praise rarely challenges our sense of self. But these are experiences where confirmation bias and the negative effects of the availability heuristic can run rampant. They create environments where feeling trumps fake, where self-fulfillment means more than facts. They allow us to create information ghettos because in the immediate moment between clicks, that’s what naturally feels best to us.

But there are other models for effective user experiences. Amazon and Facebook may be some of the best for consumption, but what about betterment?

We might take a big step towards addressing the problem of the demand for fake news by building experiences that challenge, rather than adapt to who we are.

The new model for effective, trustworthy digital journalism may look a lot more like Fitbit than Amazon. As with fitness and nutrition programs, there is of course the conceit that people need to want to solve the problem of fake news – but as with FitBit, we can design platforms that encourage people to participate through the social currency they gain by doing so.

Fitbit and others like them have shown that we can change behavior by tracking it, we can encourage personal improvement through simple, actionable feedback, and we can make the personal, social. Taking those ideas into the realm of news, we believe we can help people better discern and defend truth through broader exposure and implicit training that helps them evaluate news and data.

For the sake of simplicity (and to acknowledge to dominant narrative of our times), we’ve focused on ways to sort through partisanship to find truth. But many of these same ideas could be used to expand the scope of our collective understanding from our neighborhood and country to issues that affect others around the world, or to build empathy for people whose gender, sexual, racial, economic, national, religious identities don’t match our own.


In order to address fake news through user experience, we asked ourselves “What if?

What if we all played a part to identify
perceived bias in the news?
What if the news taught readers how they might evaluate its merits?
What if we tracked our news consumption like we tracked our steps?
And what if we could "tune" the news balance of our feeds?

We’d argue that an uninformed populace that acts on misinformation will create a social and financial cost that rivals (and likely exceeds) the cost of an unhealthy population. But it’s the companies and platforms that are effectively creating user experiences that improve people’s health who may just provide the model for addressing the potentially bigger, more destructive problem of fake news.