Elections: Design Research and Service Design for the BBC

Imagine understanding how we really interact with politics

The BBC asked Modern Human to help them understand how people experience and interact with major democratic events. Using groundbreaking research techniques, we uncovered how people really interact with politics, and created a series of comprehensive design tools that can be used to inform design and content development across the BBC’s platforms.

The BBC understands that part of its role as a public broadcaster is to provide informative, unbiased information during major events and times of societal upheaval. They wanted to ensure that the content they produce is useful and engaging to a diverse range of audiences, across both the country and the spectrum of political engagement and affiliation. In order to achieve this, the BBC asked Modern Human to help explore how different audiences experience and interact with major democratic events, by carrying out ethnographic research in the five weeks prior to the 2019 General Election. The goal was to uncover the public’s understanding of politics, their engagement with the election, their decision making process and the media outlets they trust and interact with.

In order to capture the behaviours, motivations and values of the UK electorate, we conducted qualitative research with participants from a diverse range of backgrounds, locations and political stances. Our research consisted of a five-week digital ethnographic study, beginning on the day the election was announced and finishing four days after the General Election. Our researchers were engaging with participants constantly throughout this period, with daily prompts, monitoring and interaction. This allowed the research team to really delve into the participants’ experience and draw out interesting motivations and behaviours that may not have been apparent otherwise. Participants were also asked to complete a series of tasks throughout the study, giving us an even greater insight into how they experience and interact with politics. We conducted remote contextual interviews with each participant at the outset of the research, allowing us to gain a deeper understanding of their political engagement, affiliation and voting history prior to the start of the study. We also conducted exit interviews with each participant. This helped us to unravel any inconsistencies in the study results, as well as get an understanding of their reaction to the election results.

As such a large proportion of our political lives are played out across social media, we also conducted a social media study alongside the remote shadowing study. Following participants on social media, including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram during this four week period allowed us to observe not only what they posted, but who they followed and interacted with and how these interactions impacted their actions and opinions.

Our research findings were extensive and provided us with a fascinating insight into how the UK electorate interacts with democratic events. Key to our insights was the role of the British media in portraying the General Election as a presidential style campaign, and the potential impact of this on the knowledge, understanding and voting behaviours of the public. The media’s unwavering focus throughout the election period was on the personalities of the two party leaders. This served to draw attention away from key issues such as Brexit, the NHS, education and social housing, influencing the public’s mental models for the elections and, ultimately, what they voted for. The media’s treatment of the election as a two party, presidential style campaign also obfuscated the role of local MPs, which in turn further eroded the public’s already weak understanding of the British political system.

Our research also highlighted the inadequacy of the media coverage of the election in offering useful, informative analysis of the campaign. Instead of regular, unbiased analysis of party manifestos, debates and campaign tactics, media coverage was instead dominated by three major news stories - antisemitism in the Labour party, the sale of the NHS, and the boy on the hospital floor. Each of these stories had wider political implications, however the media’s coverage was superficial and sensationalist in nature. Stories about antisemitism in the Labour party and the sale of the NHS were used to draw further focus onto the personalities of the party leaders, while the image of the young boy on the hospital floor sparked debates about fake news, rather than being used to highlight the struggles of the NHS. The repeated focus on the personalities of leaders and sensationalist coverage of these major events not only failed to engage the less politically informed. It also led to frustration, election fatigue and, ultimately, a drop-off in political engagement among more informed participants.

Participants bring their own biases with them to any ethnographic research study. This, however, is particularly true when the topic is as divisive as politics. Throughout our research we noticed an interesting phenomenon taking place with regards to the electorate’s personal biases and how this shaped their interactions with politics and the media. The vast majority of people exist in a form of echo chamber of their own curation. They are surrounded by news and views that reflect their own opinions. When they encounter content that doesn’t reaffirm their political opinion, it stands out in sharp relief. This results in unbiased content appearing skewed, while content that is biased towards their beliefs is difficult to detect. This sensitisation to negative bias and desensitisation to positive bias has a huge impact on how people interact with the media, with outlets such as the BBC appearing biased to both left and right leaning participants. 

Following a period of in-depth analysis of our research findings, we distilled our insights into a series of design tools that can be used to inform the BBC’s decision making process when it comes to design and content development.

We created a series of behavioural archetypes capturing the motivations, attitudes, needs and behaviours of distinct types of ‘electorate’, into an easily digestible format. The archetypes are based on a variety of factors, with political understanding, focus of issue and daily media ecosystem playing a key role. They can be used as a tool to help generate ideas, as well as to evaluate concepts in development. The archetypes range in political engagement and interest from the indifferent Disengaged Nonchalant, to the politically switched on Detached Rational and the passionately involved Incurious Devotee.

Building upon these archetypes was a series of experience maps, detailing the distinct experiences of each archetype throughout the election process. Each map detailed the journey and goals, actions and behaviours and level of effort of different archetypes throughout the election process, as well as the information resources and platforms they favour at each point and what they are thinking and feeling throughout. The experience maps were designed to be used alongside the archetypes. Together, they provided the information and context to allow the BBC team to identify which products and services are engaging to which sectors of the electorate.

In addition to the archetypes and experience maps, our research and analysis allowed us to provide the BBC with specific recommendations for engaging and informing varied audiences throughout democratic events. These included increasing the electorate’s understanding of the British political system by focusing on the role of local MPs, commissioning and proliferating short-form content across social media as a means of engaging those who are time-poor or less engaged and providing regular campaign scrutiny from diverse political views.

Our recommendations also included guidance on ceasing to claim impartiality and instead placing the focus on transparency, allowing the BBC to gain back trust by allowing the public to interpret content for themselves.