Brexit debate online: can user experience shape Britain’s fate?
With lies and nonsense being flung from both sides of the Brexit debate – as satirical reporter, Jonathan Pie, explains in his cutting rant – people are going online to find the truth themselves.
But what’s waiting once they hop on the Internet? More confusion thanks to websites that are difficult to navigate, full of incomplete information and overtly propagandist.
People go on government or policy-related websites to learn about things that affect their lives deeply. Things that affect the futures of their businesses, families and loved ones, and their individual identity.
That’s why it’s even more important for these kinds of websites to provide an effortless user experience.
If Apple exploits user experience to sell more phones, should it not be a given that lobbyists and government bodies will do the same to help citizens make informed decisions?
That was the logic when our senior researcher and analyst, Georgia Rakusen, tested the user experience of 2 major websites on either side of the Brexit argument:
…which argues for us to remain in Europe
…which argues for us to leave Europe
We asked voters who were undecided (but leaning one way) to go on these two websites, then we recorded their screens and spoken thoughts while they browsed. We wanted to find out:
- Whether these websites made it easy for people to find information on the issues which mattered most to them
- Whether these websites made it easy for people to find information on all issues in general, across:
- Health care
- Whether these websites made a good first impression and engendered a sense of trust within people
- Whether voter leanings would change based on their experiences on both websites
Strap in – it’s going to be a bumpy ride as I show the results of our analyses and video evidence of our findings.
It’s safe to say that neither the leave nor remain websites were built for people who already unanimously agree with their respective views.
They were designed to persuade undecided voters or doubtful voters in the opposition’s camp. So, it only makes that these websites should try to give the impression that they can answer the questions in undecided voters’ minds.
But for the most part, that’s not the case.
The remain website goes so over the top with its “pro-Britain” design, that it ends up reminding this lady of fascist BNP propaganda:
The remain website probably took this design approach to counter the impression that staying in the EU undermines British sovereignty. But it has clearly over-compensated.
The lady explains that “the website is complete rubbish… it’s very ‘tabloidy’ and… when your electorate want meaningful debate… it’s really unhelpful.”
Basically, from the moment she lands on the site, she’s getting signals that say, “We’re not going to tell you the truth… we’re going to try and manipulate you.”
But I can’t say the leave website fared much better.
This lady says she was “hoping for some positivity… about how leaving the EU would bring in more money,” instead she finds the site very negative:
It’s clear there’s been much fear-mongering throughout the EU referendum debates – and that’s reflected online.
But maybe it’s time for policy makers and lobbyists to consider that the British electorate doesn’t exclusively comprise bitter, angry people looking to blame anyone or anything.
Our research suggests people just want facts on issues they care about. Trying to prove your argument is scarier than the other side’s appears to turn many people off.
This is where the heart of the debate lies – what is staying in or leaving the EU going to mean for the things I care about.
These websites should make it easy for people to answer those questions, right? Nah… not really.
This guy found the remain website’s infographics on medical research persuasive. As soon as he sees them, he exclaims, “I’d be f***ing… I’d keep Britain inside Europe.”
But users were generally deeply unsatisfied with the depth and objectivity of the information they found on both websites (especially the remain one).
Another guy can’t find anything about the impact of staying on education. He explains that this is one of the most important aspects for students. He assumes that education will be better if Britain leaves the EU and that’s why the remain website is avoiding the topic.
This gentleman notes that the leave and remain camps are coming to entirely contradictory conclusions regarding the same issues. That’s why he doesn’t trust anyone:
When a debate has become so convoluted that it seems anyone can say anything, people can’t make informed decisions… because they don’t feel informed.
One guy notices the irritatingly inconclusive nature of the way many “experts” phrase their arguments. Maybe leaving the EU is bad for taxes… maybe it isn’t. Who knows?
This part of the online user experience – content discovery – is immeasurably important because it heavily determines which actions people do or do not take:
- Will people change their votes due to a lack of clarity and depth from the side they were going to vote for?
- Will many people simply not vote because there’s just too much nonsense on both sides – meaning voter apathy has the biggest influence on ballot boxes.
- Will we emerge from the referendum with a populace that’s informed and confident, or one that panics and makes all the wrong decisions based on the results?
Most people aren’t going to have a face-to-face debate with David Cameron or Boris Johnson. They’re finding information online. These seemingly fleeting interactions could add up to have a significant effect.
This concerns the issue of how easily and quickly people can find their way through both websites.
The only thing worse than filling your website with political rhetoric is not bothering to present it in a logical fashion.
For example, let’s consider the super-long FAQs page on the leave website that doesn’t even have a search function. One gentleman tries to find information relating to the NHS and health care but can’t:
If a website is dealing with such complex, comprehensive issues, it’s a no-brainer that people should be able to search for specific topics. No online user wants to wade through reams of text just to find one valuable sentence.
The remain website had the harshest criticism. This lady finds the website layout confusing, with too many invitations to share and infographics that look like ads, causing her to tune out:
She wasn’t the only one who felt this way, with another user commenting that she found the remain website pushy and over-the-top.
One of the few positive experiences regarding usability came on the leave website. This lady comments that “it’s a really nice website… really easy to navigate…”
She’s inclined to spend more time on the leave website, meaning that side of the argument gains a stronger presence in her mind. That’s either a good or a bad thing, depending on where your allegiances lie.
Final voting decision
The online user experience affected some people so significantly, that they reassessed their original positions (although we don’t know if any will actually change their vote on D-day).
This lady, who originally said she was undecided but leaning towards the remain side, was left disappointed by the remain site. She said she’d have changed her vote were the leave website not equally bad:
It’s interesting that the remain website has almost turned an advocate into a doubter.
Another lady explains that she prefers the leave website because the remain one is distressing and she feels like it’s shouting at her:
Things are not looking good for the remain camp – as far as the battle for capturing people online is concerned anyway.
Georgia has kindly provided a summary of her research findings:
- Undecided voters with an inclination towards the leave or remain camps, usually found the arguments on the corresponding website more appealing – but only slightly
- Neither site is effective at swaying voters – users are skeptical of statements made about what will happen in the future, and repeatedly called stats and sources into question
- Of the two, the remain site fared worse – users were able to find content more easily on the leave site and felt it was more professional
Georgia concluded, “I think it’s fair to say that at least 2 out of 10 users felt less motivated to vote ‘in’ after reviewing the website.”
What does this mean for you?
User experience isn’t just a term for geeks in food-stained hoodies. It affects you, me and everybody else in profound ways.
Think of the millions of people going on these Brexit websites and how their ideas are shaped by their online experiences. It becomes clear just how deeply our physical world is now shaped by its digital counterpart.