WhatsApp has hit headlines in India recently as a service used by people to spread rumors ranging from weird approaches to cure cancer to divisive political messages (and mobilizing lynch mobs!). A significant blame has been placed on the forwarding feature in WhatsApp that has afforded people to spread such rumors in mass scale. WhatsApp has taken some measures to address the issue by labeling forwarded messages and limiting the number of groups in which the messages can be forwarded (with stricter limits imposed in India).
At its core, the problem is a social one; not technological. Our social structure and norms influence the way we use technology. Our use of social media reflects the underlying social structures that we have in place. So, to put blame on WhatsApp alone seems like a scapegoat for a much complex social problem.
However, WhatsApp could incorporate few design changes that could help in curbing the problem. First, I want to clarify my stance: I feel restricting the number of forwards is against user’s self-determination and freedom. More importantly, the move conveys that WhatsApp has become the official gatekeeper of our social interaction — giving both power and responsibility to WhatsApp. This is a loss-loss situation: as a society, we are losing control over our interactions to a business; as a business WhatsApp finds itself in a sensitive setting, embroiled in controversy, and risking to lose a large user base.
In this post, I want to propose two interaction design changes in the current WhatsApp implementation. These changes aim to increase agency of people who mostly have good intentions but less-informed and less-reflective. These changes target to curb messages such as these:
- Making forwarded messages more prominent:
In the current implementation, forwarded messages come with a label on the top as seen in the screenshot in Figure 1. These are helpful but not prominent enough. For a person who is well-intentioned but not extra-careful about the legitimacy of the message, the label is not enough. We need more to trigger a slight nudge to think a bit more before forwarding messages.
The personal messages and the close group messages are influential factors in WhatsApp’s popularity. The subtlety of the tea green and white colors on the chat bubbles conveyed a close and personal space for interaction. The impersonal, multiple-time-forwarded messages violate that space. So, the first proposal is to change the background of the forwarded message box. I propose to use a complementary color (Classic Rose) to contrast the personally-typed message to the impersonal forwarded messages. Classic Rose (#f8c6dc) complements the tea green (#dcf8c6) employed by WhatsApp. The reddish-shade suggest an alerting note without directly imposing (see Figure 2).
2. Add extra steps to reflect before forwarding an already-forwarded message
A part of the cause of bombardment of WhatsApp forwards is the system has made it extremely easy (~5 clicks) for people to forward messages. The simplicity of the design is admirable. The mechanistic simplicity has bypassed the need for people to attach care and thought in whatever they were saying. Thus, the second proposal calls for a need to make the forwarding process more reflective.
To make people more reflective, I propose that the system intervene when a user forwards a message and ask the user (sender) about their intention in forwarding the message. The user (sender) would then write their intention which would be displayed to the targeted receiver. The targeted receiver would have an option to read (or not to read) the forwarded message after reading the sender’s intention. This supports agency in both the sender and receiver and aims to tackle the mass-forwarding problem without curbing the user’s freedom. The design change affects the fluency in which users could forward messages but it is a change that could help in enabling people to be more thoughtful and reflective in their interactions over WhatsApp (and possibly, beyond it).
The first part of the interaction is consistent with the existing WhatsApp mechanism: A user selects a message to forward, then selects the user(s)/group(s) to forward the message. Considering the first proposal, all forwarded messages are in a Classic Rose color (instead of white):
After the user presses Forward in the fourth screen, the system will prompt the user (sender) to write the intention that drove them to forward the message. Once they write that message, the receiver will receive the reflective note from the sender and an option to read the actual forwarded message. I have tried to keep the design consistent by making “Read Forwarded Message” appear like the current “Read More” option in WhatsApp:
I have tried to make the system’s message to be distinct. It has a label that says “System Message” and has a different color (#f8e1c6). This does not guarantee that the users will be more reflective but the additional steps will nudge people to forward only meaningful forwards.
People have proposed technology-centered approaches (machine learning, etc.) to tackle this problem. However, I stand firm in my belief that this is not a machine learning or a technological problem; it is a social problem where the solution will arrive from engaging people. To that end, the design changes proposed in here are first steps towards a deeper, more meaningful engagement with the users to find a solution to the problem.
P.S.: The Abode XD files used to create the wireframes and prototype are available at: https://github.com/aakash58/WhatsApp_reflective_design. You can try a basic prototype here.