Individuals across a multitude of political identities have expressed desire to hold conversations that expose them to opposing viewpoints, but they do not know how or whom to engage. The app Union brings socially and politically separated people to the same table—or rather, it brings the table to them. Created by recent graduate Hannah Rudin as part of her thesis, Teambuilding America: A Declaration of Interdependence, the app connects people with differing political views, and facilitates their interaction through a fifteen-minute video call.

Hannah created Union to fill the gap between the in-person events and the social media threads that certain organizations were devising in order to create conversations across political differences. Hannah says that “the primary goal of the experience is not necessarily having a transformative conversation, but rather a positive interaction with someone you might not otherwise meet.” In aid of her research, Hannah partnered with the national organization Make America Dinner Again, which hosts political dialogues in the form of dinner parties. They invited Hannah to their Facebook discussion page where they posted prompts to continue the conversations they started at their in-person events. “Even though all of these members had joined this page with good intention,” Hannah explains, “the reactionary nature of social media could still get to them, causing threads to get heated and conversations to be unproductive.” It was through this experience that Union was born.

Here is how Union works: After downloading the app to their smartphone, the user selects three tags describing the person they would like to talk to. For example, “I want to talk to a → republican, who’s also → a woman and → around my age.” Then, the user chooses three of their own tags to share with the other user. Lastly, the user enters a time to talk. Union then pings other users until it finds a match and next calls both users at the designated time. The app provides scaffolding for a 15-minute conversation. As Hannah explains, “the primary goal of the experience is not having a transformative conversation, but rather having a positive interaction with a person who you might not otherwise meet due to the physical separation contributing to polarization.”

Research

Before building out the core features of Union, Hannah identified four user archetypes based on both her knowledge from interviews and her participation in intergroup dialogue initiatives. She then tested her assumptions about these archetypes with an anonymous survey through the online survey platform Typeform. Hannah then shared the survey on LinkedIn and received seven responses. The survey included a brief description of the concept but tested more foundational assumptions, rather than the interface. It is important to note that the survey did not ask for political identification.

The results confirmed Hannah’s assumption that Union would primarily attract users who were interested in expanding their world views. However, it seemed to reject another core assumption: that most potential users do not already have people in their lives to whom they can go to seek viewpoints that oppose their own. Five out of seven responses indicated the presence of such a person in the respondent’s life; furthermore, three out of those five people said that the person was a close friend with whom it was fairly easy to conversations around political differences.

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The majority of respondents indicated a desire for the app to provide “loose questions and topics during the conversation” for some scaffolding. However, this question allowed for the selection of more than one response, so significant minorities also indicated that semi-rigid or very rigid conversational structures would help them have better conversations across differences.

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Lastly, Hannah asked respondents the first question that they would ask someone with a different political viewpoint, if they could talk to that person right now. While two respondents chose questions that were not overtly political, the other five respondents chose overtly political questions. This indicates that app users would indeed be interested in using the app to have politically-focused conversations, as opposed to general conversations with someone who holds a politically different viewpoint.

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Next steps

Hannah says that additional user research is needed to determine trigger moments—events that would compel someone to engage with the app. “I am curious to learn if frustration—after reading a news article, for example—would be the primary catalyst, or open-mindedness.” It is also worth noting and testing that while Union leads to conversations, conversations aren’t actually a means to an end. “The goal here is contact,” Hannah explains, “If participants just stared at each other for four minutes, Contact Theory indicates that the same goal might be achieved, but the social acceptability and incentives are lower. Finding additional actions and opportunities may require a whole other thesis.”

Read about more of the projects in this thesis at Teambuilding America: A Declaration of Interdependence.