Navigating Information

Communication Design — 1

Learnings and reflections from the communication design studio taught by Stacie Rohrbach at Carnegie Mellon University.

Wind-up toys of different forms and shapes — Photograph by Anupriya Gupta
  1. Implicit Communication
  2. Knowing thy peers
  3. Truth Decay
  4. Style — Denotation, Connotation and Schema
  5. Napkin Sketches
  6. Making users cognizant
  7. Collective Understanding
  8. Whiteboard exercise
  9. Design Jam
  10. Characteristics of Intervention
  11. Navigating a city vs information
  12. Brainstorming Intervention
  13. Developing Intervention Idea
  14. Intervention — Break the Cage
  15. Learnings

1. Implicit Communication

31 August 2021, Tuesday W1

Every day we interact with a number of products and objects, and with time we get used to using them subconsciously. This is in contrast to our first-time interaction with new products and objects. We often draw patterns from the past to derive the meaning of the forms, colour, function or cultural significance.

(L) Wind-up toy; (R) Grasshopper toy — Captured by Anupriya Gupta

Looking at a variety of wind-up toys, I along with my peers tried to decipher how to operate the toys and guess their motion and behaviour. Every element in a toy conveyed information, be it the materials, colour, shape, structure or sound. A number of them had recognisable shapes like a dinosaur and auto-taxi, and thus it was easier to imagine them functioning. On the other hand, some had an abstract form and visible mechanical parts with an element of surprise that drew my attention. One toy threw away sparks as it moved from its tail which was completely unexpected. ✨

Here, I learned a key difference between curiosity and confusion, while I was not confused about how to operate them, I was rather intrigued about what will happen when I turn the key. As a designer, my learning is to create products that spark curiosity and not confusion and use implicit elements and not just explicit instructions to relay information.

2. Knowing thy peers

31 August 2021, Tuesday W1

To understand the class distribution in terms of who we are, what we like or why are we at CMU, amongst others, we did a quick affinity exercise as an ice-breaking session. Since M.Des is a specialisation course in interaction design, it requires all students to have a minimum experience of 2 years in the industry. We found out that 10 out of 21 students were involved in design-related fields like product design, architecture, craft design, user interface design and interaction design. Interestingly some people have worked in a particular industry like visual communication for few years and then shifted to user experience design practice. Some people also came from non-conservative design roles like working at art galleries, advertising and fundraising at NGO’s.

Affinity Excercise — Photographs by Yeonjin Park and Anupriya Gupta

This distribution was reflected in individual goals at CMU, ranging from career shift to design and personal growth & exploration. In terms of what most people want to learn from this course, the response was inclined towards improving storytelling skills to better communicate ideas efficiently and concisely. Additionally, to look at new ways of designing and create solutions that excite and delight users.

Overall it was a fun ice-breaking session wherein everyone was interacting to find patterns, analysing the clusters and presenting the glimpse of their findings to the entire class.

3. Truth Decay

31 August 2021, Tuesday W1

The increasing relative volume, and resulting influence, of opinion and personal experience over fact — Truth Decay, Jennifer Kavanagh & Michael D. Rich

Every day we come across thousands of bits of information from myriad sources like social media, news channels and word of mouth. With the increasing amount of data accessible to us, it has become increasingly difficult to identify the facts from opinions or even fake news. Reading about ‘Truth Decay’, I further realise the huge impact that misinformation can create. One of the real-life examples that I have come across is Climate Change.

Image Source — https://therealnews.com/

While it is a scientific fact with proven evidence that climate change is real, there continues to be a category of people called ‘Climate Change Deniers’. While on one hand, institutions like NASA talk about the adverse future consequences of climate change, some people continue to deny it due to personal beliefs, economic and political gain. With influential people denying the phenomenon, there is a rise in controversies, debates and misinformation.

Today’s news platforms and channels are filled with a mix of personal opinion and facts. Below we can see an example of the BBC news wherein a large amount of space is occupied by someone’s opinion and thoughts. There is no clear demarcation when it comes to hard ‘facts’ and personal ‘experiences’ or ‘opinions’.

Opinions (Blue) and Facts (Green) — Screenshots from https://www.bbc.com/

Similarly, we can notice that any article in itself is a mix of facts and opinions. For a casual reader, it might be difficult to know what to believe and what not to. Sometimes, the article would explicitly mention that say “Police typically describe them as….”, and we know that what follows is based on personal experience. But at other times, the author of the article or a news channel anchor might talk about their own opinions or would not provide supporting facts, say “Such measures are not unusual at moments of tension … ”. It is the former ones that are more confusing.

Some platforms adopt a separate approach and clearly categorise sections containing personal analysis. One example is the ‘Breakingviews’ tab on Reuters that consists of articles from experts in the fields but still are based on personal voices. This design approach can make it easier for the readers to distinguish different information.

Screenshot from https://www.reuters.com/

With deep fake technology, it is now possible to make the fake look real! Going in the future it would be increasingly difficult to differentiate the real and trustworthy from the rest.

4. Style

2 September 2021, Thursday W1

As we look at the world around us, it communicates to us through its form and context. We interpret their meanings in different ways depending on our mental model, Schema, including the general expectations and knowledge about the world — the people, social practices, events, and places. Each object has its own style that voices out its interpretation. While FORM is related to the CONNOTATION, of what the shape and look signifies indirectly, CONTENT is related to DENOTATION, of what the meaning is directly or textually.

Further, while society often shapes the design with prior connotations and denotations, sometimes design can shape society by defining new meanings with developing technologies.

Society shapes design (Illustrative); Design shapes Society (Formative) — Davis

(L)Connotation aligned with Denotation (R) Conflicting Connotation and Denotation — Google Fonts

We looked at various typefaces to understand the correlation of denotation, connotation and schema. When all three of them are aligned it is easier to interpret the meaning and context whereas if the denotation conflicts with the connotation or schema it causes confusion.

Next, in a quick typeface exercise, we looked at two sets of typefaces and made notes of appropriate attributes and adjectives (connotations) that these texts related to. It was interesting to note how the meanings of a similar font change in comparison to different sets.

Relationship between typeface and their perceived attributes

Talking about styles we also discussed the life cycle of most styles and how at different points of time, a particular style or design becomes popular and eventually dies off only to be re-instated again.

Life Cycle of a Style — Lorraine Wild

5. Napkin Sketches

2 September 2021, Thursday W1

To represent and communicate our findings from truth decay, we learned the Napkin Sketching technique and organizational methods presented by Don Moyer. It is a very simple and effective method to present thoughts as illustrations using minimum words. The workbook talks about the use of line drawings to create hierarchies, flow charts, decision trees, timelines, comparisons and other such quick organizational methods to convey important information. Following are a few napkin sketches made by me that highlight some of my key findings of truth decay —

✏️ There is a mix of opinions and facts which is hard to differentiate

Organizational Method: Just Show it

It is confusing for a general user to recognise what parts of the information on any media are an opinion vs facts since they are often intertwined together.

✏️ There is an increasing trend to consume information and news through social media platforms since people are trusting their friends and connections more than established institutions.

Organizational Method: Hierarchies and Comparison

There is a humongous amount of information and misinformation that we come across, and the question is who or which source do we trust?

✏️ If enough people start believing in something, others would also believe it as truth even if it is false.

Organizational Method: Comparison

Sometimes, even if the information is not correct, if a large number of people start believing in it, others would either be convinced of it or confused about what to believe in anymore.

6. Making readers cognizant

7 September 2021, Tuesday W2

Some things that, as readers, we should keep in mind are that the information that is presented to us can be biased due to different political and economic reasons. Everything out there is a clickbait that is fighting for your attention to influence you into thinking on similar lines and form matching opinions. Therefore it is important to be aware of the biases and read from multiple sources with contrasting views to get a holistic picture of the situation.

✏️ Attention seeking trend can mean misleading headlines

Organizational Method: Just Show it

The headlines are meant to catch users attention, but this can sometimes be at the cost of the truth. While the information might only be an opinion, it is presented or written in a declarative format which causes confusion. In the complete article, the author would rectify the mistake, but most users might not read the entire article.

✏️ Facts are difficult, boring, and time-consuming while personal opinions are easy and entertaining.

Organizational Method: Comparison

While it is harder to articulate and understand facts, it is easier and fun to listen to and form your own opinions. Thus, facts become boring while opinions engage people and make them entertaining.

7. Collective Understanding

9 September 2021, Thursday W2

Collective Whiteboard Sketch

Working together in a group — Eva, Greg, Christina and me formed a collective understanding of the issues related to Truth Decay and The Increasing Relative Volume and Resulting Influence of Opinion over Facts. We talk about the current situation and how it is happening in the background to help users be aware of their biases.

✏️ Increasing Volume over facts

Organizational Method: Quantities

With the increasing accessibility of information throughout the data and a limited number of facts, we see a striking rise in the number of opinions circulating around us. Where earlier news was limited to some slots in the morning and evening, now the 24 hrs news is filled with talk shows rather than facts. Analogously, even on social media, when we see a post, the number of comments often surpass the length of the facts/ post itself.

✏️ Influencers

Organizational Method: Just show it

When we see the impact of a normal user spreading information versus an influencer spreading information, and the speed at which the information passes through, there is a huge difference. And hence, influencers have the power to either present one side of the story or cover the entire picture.

✏️ Opinions are increasingly preferred over opinions because they spark conversations and are engaging unlike facts

Organizational Method: Comparison

Facts need to be studied and it takes time to analyse and use facts. The whole process can be boring and tedious. On the other hand, opinions are easy to form and since it involves multiple people and interactions, it is fun and engaging. Furthermore, the flow of information in facts, especially with traditional media like television and radio, is uni-directional from the source to the users and does not spark a conversation. Whereas, with opinions and the use of social media, the information flows in every direction.

Going forward, we realise the importance of engagement and dialogue that opinions bring in and hence we feel that there is a need for the right balance between facts and opinions. Instead of reducing the volume of opinions, which is one of the fundamental rights to express, our focus is to make people more cognizant about the information that they are consuming.

8. Whiteboard exercise

9 September 2021, Thursday W2

Presenting the whiteboard sketch

The exercise was to present our findings to the entire class using whiteboard sketching and it turned out to be interestingly different from the napkin sketching. Some of my learnings from the process are —

  • It can be difficult to draw and explain simultaneously but on the other hand, two people doing two different tasks together can lead to divided attention. So, finding the sweet spot and having coordination between making illustrations and communicating can be helpful while pointing to the relevant illustration time and again.
  • It is easier for the audience to remember the context in case the illustrations are accompanied by small labels and titles to get an overarching picture.
  • The use of different colours can be impactful in distinguishing different pieces of information and clearly communicating ideas.
  • Focusing on the relationships and use of Moyer’s Napkin Sketching Technique is a quick and effective way to represent important ideas.

To build upon and correct the mistakes we made, we did the exercise again to reflect upon the shortcomings. One insight was that while we focused on what is important for people to know, we didn’t emphasise why it is important for them to know this. As a conclusion, we formed one-line statements for WHAT and WHY —

We believe it is important for people to know that there is a mix of opinions and facts which can be difficult to differentiate and one should believe in the facts and contemplate on the opinoins.

It is important for people to know this so that they do not get manipulated by personal biases or mis-information created for economic and political benefits.

Re-do whiteboard sketch

9. Design Jam

14 September 2021, Tuesday W3

Next, to visualise our intervention, we did a hands-on exercise to build a scenario using metaphors. The idea talks about how everyone is trapped in their own echo chambers. They are manipulated by organisations to further their own interests and are often puppets of the system. Inside the chamber, they consume information that is biased to one side ~ represented by blue media.

The first intervention is to put a mirror in the chamber to make people realise that they are trapped inside a system and to be able to see the strings that control them. The second intervention is to break that mirror and open a window to the outside world which has the other side of information. Here the pink sources of information are representing the flip side and thus opens the people’s minds to the broader perspective and help them form their own opinions.

Lastly, we want to give people the power to choose their own opinions and cut the strings that control them and use the scissors to free themselves if they choose to.

Intervention Visualization

10. Characteristics of Intervention

16 September 2021, Thursday W3

An intervention is a small dent that changes the trajectory of the ongoing practices. It breaks existing beliefs to expose new information. It is often accompanied by deception and surprise to capture the interest of people who are unwilling to engage and thus often raises questions rather than giving answers. While it may start in one’s comfort zone, through small instances it creates a shift. Lastly, most interventions would tell a story and spark interaction and emotions that lead to empowerment.

As we reflected on what we had learned, for our project, we moved into creating a goal for our intervention to accomplish the following:

  1. To have the user be consciously aware of the increasing volume in media
  2. For individuals to avoid being easily manipulated
  3. Promote mindful thinking when crafting an opinion

11. Navigating a city vs information

16 September 2021, Thursday W3

Kerin Lynch, the author of Image of the city, talks about how experiences are influenced by connections to the surroundings, the sequence of events leading to it and past experiences. The author further talks about two interesting terms — Imageability and Legibility. Imageability is a quality of something which evokes a vivid image in the viewer's eyes and thus is easy to recognise and remember. Legibility is a characteristic that makes it simple to connect patterns and find greater meaning. While Lynch talks about these qualities in the context of cities, and how they can help in understanding and navigating through a city, they can easily be translated to design and communication. While designing any product or service, the system mental model has to align with users prior beliefs and schemas, and incorporating imageability and legibility can help people easily navigate through information. Drawing inspiration from the elements of the city defined by Lynch, we discussed how different design elements guide the content in a book.

Comparison between elements of city and design

12. Brainstorming Intervention

16 September 2021, Thursday W3

How are your intervention ideas evolving? What is informing your decisions?

Building upon the storyboard visualisation, we started ideating an intervention that would make people aware of the increasing volume of opinions over facts while being able to differentiate them in order to not get influenced by other people’s biases. To keep the intervention targeted and impactful, we chose our audience as undergraduate students. We believe that at this stage in life, students start to form their own opinions and can get easily manipulated by the information they receive from influencers and hence it is critical to make them aware and help them make independent choices. We are interested in exploring domains like health awareness and politics since both these avenues struggle with misinformation and personal opinions.

We also believe that this awareness can help students be more vigilant about not getting manipulated and also not manipulating others by truly understanding the consequences of truth decay. Some of the initial ideas that we have are —

Idea: A tool that helps people see the other side of things. In any information page, if a user taps on the flip mode, they would see that the facts and opinions would get highlighted in different colours and while facts will remain as it is, they will be able to see the contradicting opinions on the issue.

How it will help: It would firstly make people clearly see and compare the number of facts and opinions in the information that they are consuming. Further, by flipping the opinions to the opposing opinions, they would break out of their echo chambers and get a holistic picture of how other people are thinking about the topic.

Idea: A chatbot that can be a part of any group that the users would like to invite in and would help reinforce the difference between facts and opinions in conversations. It can further help people in looking for other facts that are related to a topic that they want to deep dive in. Another aspect of the bot can be integrated within the comments section of a social media platform, say Twitter, and then keep dropping factual information about the discussion or assist people in writing comments with correct information.

How it will help: We believe that most people inherently have good intentions but sometimes they cannot differentiate between a fact vs an opinion. While other people, because of lack of knowledge, refrain from expressing their opinions. The chatbot can help people find relevant facts to support their argument while also being a check on incorrect information.

Idea: A platform that shows the number of data points — comments/ posts/articles/ news blog created every day now versus in the past, in the form of visualisations to create a digital historic data museum. Further, to keep elements interactive and quiz people about common facts to increase engagement with data.

How it will help: The platform would signify the increasing volume of data generated, especially opinions in today’s world, that the users can become aware of. Further, it can help them understand how the increased information impacts different users and themselves.

Idea: A tool that can help users and influencers communicate opinions and facts correctly, without creating misinformation. It can suggest phrase changes or highlight key elements in a sentence that one can re-look at. If someone is writing an opinion, but phrasing it like it was a true, validated fact, the system can prompt the users to sounds less declarative. For example, if a user is saying “Coronavirus is causing a new deadly disease”, and this is not proven information, the suggestion could be “Coronavirus may be causing a new deadly disease”. Or it can simply highlight the word “is” and say, “Are you sure you want to phrase it like that?”

How it will help: It can help the readers differentiate opinions from facts by creating a clear distinction. Thus, it can help prevent the spread of misinformation and truth decay.

13. Developing Intervention Idea

21 September 2021, Tuesday W4

Further discussion on the ideas led us to think about the feasibility of some of the interventions. How can the solution differentiate a fact from an opinion? Is there are any way to create an exhaustive database of facts? Can all of this be possible within a limited team and resources? Would the intervention be a one-time experience or a recurring event? Would the users be motivated enough to download separate plug-ins, extensions and applications?

One of the thoughts that struck us is that people, especially students, are always looking to know more about themselves and how others think of them. From that chain of thought, and building upon the idea of a one-time experience, interactive live website and historic digital museum, we explored the idea of an interactive personality game. The aim of this direction is to help counter truth decay and also enable users to consume media mindfully. We pushed for a solution to nudge undergraduates in a way that they reflect upon their own behaviour in an interesting and fun way. Also, personality test results are very commonly shared with friends and family or even on social media online, which could be leveraged to spread the intervention within the community.

When understanding media consumption, we first thought about how much users consume media, with a large number of opinions and personal experiences being spread easily and quickly. Following the quantity, we thought about how users take in the media, who they are following, and how easily are they influenced by these opinions. Lastly, after receiving and digesting the mass amount of opinions and personal experiences shared online, how much do they share themselves and let their opinions be heard?

Further, to capture this range of information consumption patterns, we ideated on multiple personalities like — fact-checker, social butterfly, influencer, neutral. We ideated on the question types and how the responses would be related to the personality results. We decided to utilize a test similar to Myers-Briggs’s 16 Personality Test because the test structure shows that the answers are fluid; our behavior may change from time to time but there exist habits that can be representative of our personalities. The Myers-Briggs test also states that all personalities are neutral, there is no good or bad type of personality, which is something we wanted to emphasize.

Ideation of personalities and quiz questions — Image Captured by Christina Ip

14. Intervention — Break the Cage

28 September 2021, Tuesday W5

Break out of the Cage is a personality test to identify how one consumes news media by listing out their habits and tendencies. Our questions approach is built on how likely the test taker is to agree or disagree with the statement. The questions are divided into three categories: Amount of Medium Consumption, Influenced Tendencies, and Amount of Media Shared. For the results, each category is calculated to find the median of where a test taker falls in the spectrum of agree, disagree, or neutral. The purpose of this test is to be a tool.

The ways in which we consume media are subjective but understanding how we consume media can lead to insights about our behavior and interpreting it to form our own opinion.

In the first category, the question aims to find out how much the test taker consumes media to gauge their consumption rate and how they stay informed to see if they are following multiple sources or just a few.

In the second category, the question aims to identify how easily influenced the test taker is from opinions and personal experiences from others.

In the last category, the questions aim to gauge how often the test taker reacts and takes action by commenting or sharing their opinions.

Once users have answered all of the questions, they are assigned a personality, a breakdown of how they scored, and an overview of some of the habits and tendencies. Within the description, we also incorporated some statistics about media consumption so that the test taker can be better informed about the growing volume of opinions and personal opinions that is happening today.

Personality Test Results — Storyteller and Homebody

For Media Consumption, we added suggestions on how test-takers could read opinions that are the opposite of theirs. During our research, we learned that we can occasionally fall into an echo chamber of ideas and to combat this, we can try to see the other side. In the Influence Media Tendency section, we incorporate factual statistics for each personality. We are stressing how easy it is and common to receive news on social media platforms and the importance of crafting your own opinion. Our last section, Media Sharing Rate is a reflection for the test-taker to consider when crafting an opinion. We tie our overarching goal here so the user can spend time thinking about not only how much they share on social media but also what they share.

Our team’s intervention creates an experience where we are encouraged to consume news media critically and also develop opinions independently from popularity. To do this, we need to understand our own media consumption first, the overall state/situation of opinions in media today, and what we can be influenced by. Ultimately, with any personality, we can be a mindful consumers of media, think critically, and if we wish, add to the growing volume of opinions as well.

While this personality test is targeted towards a certain age group and demographic, this was only because of the popularity of personality tests on social media and they were the largest users in social media. Anyone can take the test to reflect on their media behavior and learn to consume media more mindfully.

15. Learnings

30 September 2021, Thursday W5

My learnings from the project firstly revolve around gaining insight into the topic of truth decay which is a crucial subject for the world we live in today. I became more aware of how I consume information and the role opinions and facts play in forming my mental models. In terms of the process, writing regular medium posts helped me to reflect upon my learnings. Secondly, the project reinforced some of the design fundamentals useful in digital platforms and the importance of being cognizant about the structure, visual form, hierarchy, colors, framing and layout to help users navigate through information.

Dreamer by day, designer by night. An incurable cinephile who often escapes into magical worlds while immersed in her books.