Sift is an experiment in news therapy to help you feel more informed and less anxious when you face the headlines. Download it from the App Store here.
It was the day after the 2016 presidential election, and Phil Libin sent a text to Chris Ploeg and Gabe Campodonico, experienced designers he’d worked with at Evernote. “That product idea you’ve been talking about,” he told them, “is something we need to build. Now.”
The product in question was one that Ploeg and Campodonico had mulled over for months as they observed the media coverage leading up to the election with growing concern. “The way people consumed news was terrible,” said Campodonico. “Everyone was getting more and more polarized. That’s something that had been happening for a while, but we were feeling it more at that time.”
While the election created urgency for Campodonico and Ploeg’s product idea, what they hoped to address was bigger than just one presidential election. They wanted to make a better way to understand news—a way that wouldn’t drum up increasing levels of anxiety by scrolling through one “hot take” headline after another. That idea became Sift.
Sift takes a complex topic and provides a thorough breakdown of what’s important to know. The first topic they’ve tackled is immigration policy in the U.S.
By presenting comprehensive fact-checked coverage, Sift avoids the alarm-raising media storms that often arise around these matters, and instead lets readers gather thoroughly-vetted information at their own pace. The reduction of anxiety-triggering news intake is something they’re calling news therapy.
“A lot of people in America feel overwhelmed by the news,” said Kelly Chen, writer and editor at Sift. “Keeping up with the news is anxiety-driven. Sift is an experiment to see if that experience could be more nuanced.”
The app guides readers through a deck of digital cards, each of which presents a distilled point backed by sourced research. The user can choose between the Economy deck, which explains the complex economic factors at play in immigration policy in the U.S., or the Society deck, which focuses on the social and historical context.
While swiping, every so often a brief challenge will come up; for example, “Match each group with the year you think they were granted citizenship in the U.S.” Getting correct answers doesn’t earn the user any rewards, because it’s not about accruing points—it’s about providing an interactive way to encourage users to think about what they’re consuming and how it aligns with their preconceived ideas.
“The goal of Sift is for people to get away from headlines that just talk about what happened, and more into foundational concepts of why they’ve happened,” said Campodonico.
Ploeg added, “From a general content perspective, we try to not be hyperbolic or triggering for people, but we’re also not trying to pretend like everything’s fine. Immigration policy needs nuanced, thoughtful coverage, not people shouting about it.”
Sift bills itself as “an experiment in news therapy.” The “experiment” part of that tagline is meant to invite users to participate in its development, and to signal that the product that’s out today is only the first iteration of what it may ultimately become. To that end, users are able to provide direct feedback to Sift’s creators within the app.
Sift’s co-founders are not journalists, so their outsiders’ perspective on the news gave them a clear view for reassessing what worked and what didn’t in media consumption. They both have design backgrounds; Campodonico was the head of product design at Evernote, and Ploeg was a design manager on that team.
What they’ve built with Sift is a design-driven take on how people can consume information. Campodonico explained the need for that approach: “We knew we were digging into a level of detail you don’t get while reading the daily headlines. That’s a lot to ask of people with busy schedules, so we had to think of a form that would allow a wider spectrum of people to engage more deeply with this information. That was a product design problem.”
After building the scaffolding of what they wanted the product to be, they brought in Chen, a journalist who came from CNN and the Huffington Post, to help them flesh out the content.
“This process wouldn’t have happened in a newsroom, because Chris and Gabe, as designers, think so differently,” said Chen. “As journalists, we think news first. We want to get the accurate info and throw it out into the world. Chris and Gabe think of the user first, and what they know and want to know, and all those considerations made it a lot harder when we were designing it, but ultimately made for a better product. We’re setting up expectations for users to want to learn more.”
Get a mental workout
This experiment in news therapy is meant to help people improve the mindset they have when taking in the news, but it also asks that users put in the effort do that in a methodical way. “We won’t take all your anxiety away—you have to put in the work too,” explained Chen. Or as Ploeg likes to say, “We’re not a spa, we’re a gym.”
As exercise strengthens the body, so too can this kind of deep-dive fortify the mind. Enjoy that cognitive runner’s high.