[DIGEST: NPR, Fusion, Wired, The New York Times]
With most things on the internet, user ease is king. As a general rule, the fewer steps, the better for the user—and by extension, for the website. But Nextdoor, the popular neighborhood social media app, has broken this cardinal rule, deliberately making its website harder to use.
Nextdoor has grown explosively since its launch in 2010. It now has about 53,000 communities across the United States based on neighborhood boundaries, with users exchanging five million messages every day. It is designed to bring communities together through postings about local events, garage sales, babysitting services, lost animals and crime and safety.
It is the Crime and Safety section that has come under attack, as accusations emerged that the site was harboring race-based fear-mongering and fostering bias. Many users—often innocently—relied on racial profiling when reporting suspected criminal activity. A typical example: an African American would knock on someone’s door, and the action would be reported as “suspicious.”
“We don’t believe members of Nextdoor are racist,” said Nextdoor’s CEO Nirav Tolia. “But well-meaning neighbors can post things in such a way that there can be dire consequences.”
In the previous version of Nextdoor, to fill out a crime and safety report, the user was directed to a blank entry field. It was similar to an email in both format and ease. The user filled it out, clicked “post” and was done.
Under the new interface, the user encounters numerous checkpoints that prevent posting about suspicious activities when the user focuses on the suspicious person’s race. Before
even posting, pop-ups come up cautioning the user to be careful about posting based on an individual’s race. Clicking on the popup takes the user to a section with eight entry fields to choose from, including hair, age, clothing, sex and race. If the user fills out the race box, at least two other sections must also be completed before they can proceed.
These added steps create, in tech speak, “friction.” And in the tech world, “friction” is not a good thing.
Despite heated internal debate, Tolia intentionally decided to create friction on the site. “It’s highly unusual for a social network to say: ‘If you don’t do this, you cannot post.’ Highly unusual. I mean, think about Twitter or Facebook or Snapchat. There’s no friction at all in the process of posting.”
So far, the new interface is working. A blind study showed that racial profiling on Nextdoor is down 75 percent. However, Nextdoor has also seen a 50 percent increase in users abandoning their posts, many of them in the Crime & Safety section. This increase in abandonment was expected, said Tolia.
Yet it is a cost Tolia is willing to live with, as he strives to improve the already high reduction in racial profiling. “Our new [posting process] resulted in a 75 percent reduction of racial-profiling incidents on the site—we want it to be 100 percent,” he said.
Although Tolia isn’t satisfied, others are celebrating the move, despite the added time it requires of users. “Anytime you’re filling out a form online and it admonishes you for not matching up with its own criteria, that’s a universal usability problem,” said Samuel Hulick, user experience expert. “But this was an admirable decision,” he continued. “The intention behind it seems to be a humanitarian one.”