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It’s This Easy To Look Inside An Algorithm

How could we get a look behind the algorithms? Here’s proof it doesn’t need to be so complicated.

It’s This Easy To Look Inside An Algorithm
[Illustration: Dacian_G/iStock]

Why is Google serving us that ad? Why is Facebook suddenly showing us an ex’s status updates? Why did Chase suddenly offer me a new mortgage rate–and how come it’s not lower?

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These are the opaque decisions made for us all day, every day, by computer programs–algorithms that dictate the fate of so much of what we see. And now, the U.K. studio If has a concept proposing how we could look inside this software to understand why we’re seeing what we see.

Developed for the U.K. government’s open call to make its digital services more transparent, If presents several straightforward bits of user interface that can clarify esoteric, automated processes.

Read the full submission here. [Image: IF]
This first workflow shows how much money will be paid by the government for a health checkup, how much will need to be paid by the client, and for what reasons. Note how the designers associate the simple color orange with the act of getting more information. It underlines the word “why,” it highlights that a key decision was made by a computer, and it’s even the color used in the “X” bullet points that detail why someone has been penalized. Orange becomes an unconscious cue to find out WTF is going on with this bill, with full transparency as to when a human or machine has made a decision.

Read the full submission here. [Image: IF]
A second workflow, for appointments, gives the user an even deeper look into the algorithm. Tapping into an appointment date that’s been set by the machine, the user can see the “insights” that led the software to make this decision–including where a person lived, the days of the week he preferred to have appointments, and his own history of attendance. If anything looks wrong, the user can “stop using this insight” with a tap. And if things still look wrong, the user can contact a human for help with another tap.

I’m not claiming this is cutting-edge design or anything. It’s links. Buttons. Lists. What’s radical has nothing to do with the interface but the intent of the interface, its willingness to bring the user behind the curtain at every step. The products of today do this a bit–Netflix tells you why it has recommended various movies, and Facebook has that “why am I seeing this ad” link you may have noticed. But there’s still a huge gap between what If has proposed and pretty much any existing platform. Be it social media or health insurance, no company’s software is nearly so self-revealing. And as we only have more and more machines making decisions on our behalf every day, that’s a trend that needs to change, lest the user become the used.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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