Meet the Candidates: Physical Presence

How interactive medium delivers an intuitive understanding of political views.

Background

Voters are under-informed. One of the challenges for them is understanding where do the candidates stand on specific issues. Most of the time, media outlets push event-based news into the voters’ source of information — TV, social media, etc. A summarization of candidates is unlikely to be actively served to the voters and needs them to seek for it.

In Spring 2019, The New York Times published an interactive article Meet the Candidates interviewing Democratic presidential candidates.

“The New York Times reached out to 22 Democratic presidential candidates to ask them the same set of questions on video… During the interviews, we asked candidates to answer each question briefly — with a simple yes or no, or another terse, direct reply — before explaining their views at greater length.” — About the Project

This project analyzes the article’s effectiveness from a communication and interaction design perspective. It then tries to offer a possible physical presence that builds upon the original report for enhanced influence. The goal is to find ways to inform the electorate in a concise, intuitive format, and reach a broad audience through a new medium.

About This Project

This is a concept work and is not affiliated with The New York Times. The Times logo, the NYT Franklin typeface, and relevant editorial content are used here for illustrative purposes.

An Interactive Format

Compared to traditional reporting, mostly in the format of profile and interview, this interactive article makes use of the the on-demand nature of interactive content, enabling new ways to tell the story.

Advantages

Candidates talk in a video with their own voice and agree on the format in advance. This format offers trust to both the audience and candidates by design: editorial means won’t influence the delivered message.

Candidates answer to questions based on an important issue. This removes emotional engagement from the candidates that might distract the message, offering purely straightforward and hopefully rational comments.

Candidates are asked to answer in brief. They reply with a simple yes or no, or another brief, direct reply — before explaining their views at greater length. The conciseness allows quick consumption for the audience.

A screenshot of the original article, showing a video answer from a candiate on a certain question, with a summary on the side. Other candidates' anwsers are visible below.

Candidates’ answers are summarized with a quote from the video. Relative clips are also compiled into an overview video. This allows the audience to quickly understand all candidates’ views without watching their detailed answers. If a candidate dodges the question, the quote will be naturally ineffective as a message from the candidate.

Candidates can talk to only the audience and only once, through answering the given question. This prevents fighting between each other, hijacking conversation for stealing attention from other candidates, or shifting the topic to avoid the audience’s scrutiny. Those are common problems with a TV debate.

No live audience reactions. This ensures the message is delivered without any collective influence like cheering or booing. The viewer can have a more independent thinking process.

Candidates’ answers are visually presented side by side with summary quotes. This allows the audience to quickly browse through candidates, easily compare across them, and pick anyone to watch in detail. This avoids linearity of TV news and text-based news and allow the viewer to understand in the own pace and order.

Downsides

No fact-checking. The report sacrifices facts by giving candidates their own screen time with almost no moderation and editing. Even as the candidates are asked to offer a straightforward answer upfront and elaborate afterward, some of them still delivered stump speeches without clear standpoints.

No follow-ups. Some candidates’ response to a particular issue deserves a follow-up to discuss the details. The lack of exchange could encourage misleading campaigning without using solid proof or plan but empty promises. Again it is sacrificed for the format and increase the candidate’s will to participate.

Only interviewed one party. This is specific to the 2020 set of data, but it’s still challenging to include both parties in today’s political landscape. On issues of concern, the two parties generally have different focus, and it’s hard to offer a fair amount of time on it without being criticized for partisan bias.

Missing Biden’s participation. In this specific dataset, the absence of the front-runner is a significant imbalance of the report. The audience cannot get a full picture of the landscape.

Questions have limited depth. It’s not bringing out the nuances and facts of specific issues, but if the format targets the uninformed portion of the electorate, then it’s probably good enough.

A Physical Presence

User interface of the installation, captured live.

The report itself has limited reach. It’s published within a paywall, and it’s only available on the custom webpage. Most people’s media digest does not include a subscription to the Times, and the report is not advertised on social media. A physical medium can be useful for exposing the content to a random audience. It’s a passive delivery mechanism that the audience can hardly ignore—it’s physically in front of them without them asking for it. This can be strategically placed in public spaces where people have a high chance of interacting with the environment, such as the DMV or a college campus hall. The report has the potential to be endorsed by federal or state organizations if it has all parties’ candidates because it has no editorial content and can encourage responsible voting, not to mention the excellent track record of the Times. Although for this specific set of data, it’s limited to only the Democratic Party and is unlikely to be endorsed by non-political organizations and installed on their property.

The format itself has a non-linear structure and does not require a specific length of time to digest. The viewer can choose how much time they want to spend on it with granularity based on their interest. This is ideally suited for public installation as most people are walking by with some other destination in mind.

The format naturally draws attention as candidates speak to and look directly at the audience. It’s much more resonating in physical form as it has a more realistic eye contact effect. This also naturally encourages discussions among groups as they decide who to watch next.

The format delivers a lot of basic information about the candidates in a short amount of time. Although it’s not nearly enough to fully inform the electorate about the candidates, it s highly effective for the larger uninformed group. A physical format amplifies the power to connect with the general public beyond the readers of the Times.

Explored Ideas

Public Comments

It’s challenging to include public discussions in news reports. Times’ original release included a hosted comment section that opened only for two days. Viewer’s Picks and NYT Picks are separately featured.

One idea was to feature live comments as the audience view the installation. I abandoned it for the same reason that comments are separately featured online. Picking out informative comments is less responsive to user participation, but this can avoid trolling and encourage in-depth discussion of substantive issues.

The final prototype features staff picks of comments and encourages the audience to participate online.

Support Counts

Another idea was to add a real-time counter of the audience’s support of a candidate. The user can tap a support button to increase that number. This offers the user a sense of resolution and engagement in the process. It was abandoned to deliver a fair opportunity to the candidates. Candidates’ polling data correlates their TV news coverage time, which in turn reinforces their numbers.

To allow the candidates’ discussion to be heard, it’s crucial to avoid the audience’s exposure to public influences. The format has no cheering audience or any chance for collective emotional engagement so that the candidates can focus on substantive answers. In the same way, showing support counts that don’t reflect the national opinion can influence the audience’s capability to judge the candidates by facts and their answers.

Editorial Imagery

The only graphical element in the project is the interview video. The questions themselves have no visual distinction, and it can be very daunting to read them all. One idea was to use imagery to feature each question and give them a unique look and identity. This is abandoned to reduce emotional engagement in the project, thereby presenting the candidates’ view without any external influences.

Midterm Election

Presidential elections might be a project too big for a news agency to conduct without being criticized, but the format is flexible enough that it can also be applied to Midterm elections. Local TV stations can feature their local legislature and inform the voters. This is more effective than presidential elections as local elections are under less spotlight and mostly not featured In national news.

Demo

For copyright and logistic reasons, live demo available upon request.

Reflection

The project started with the goal of helping voters understand the candidates. The installation was set out to be widely adopted even by federal and state offices. This requires the piece to be objective and first-handed, without any journalistic edits.

I initially attempted to include both parties, but later found out that it’s practically impossible. The two parties have a vastly different communication strategy, and it’s challenging to come up with a shared set of questions that concerns both groups of voters, it’s also challenging for the audience to compare between answers in those cases as they will answer in drastically different styles.

In recent years, it’s even harder to achieve that kind of goal as the Republican Party has delegitimized mainstream media, in this case, The New York Times. Without a common ground of truth and trustee, it’s almost impossible for a divided electorate to agree on the same issue.

Suffice to say that this project takes a pessimistic view of the media’s voice, as it amplifies the candidates’ voice without gatekeeping. Unfortunately, it’s crucial more than ever for the uninformed voters to participate.

Jan. 2020 Update

As the primaries unfold, the Times has published more questions and added new candidates to the response. Some candidates still did not participate, likely for strategic reasons, leaving the piece less comprehensive.