WINE'2021 Experiment Design

A tutorial on opportunities and challenges in online field experiments

Spillover Effects in Online field experiments: Opportunities and challenges

This tutorial consists of six talks by researchers from a wide range of disciplines such as computer science, economics, statistics, and operation research. Here we provide an overview of one main issue in online field experiments: spillover effects. We compile a reading list for researchers in both academia and industry who are interested in this topic.

In this overview, we first introduce the spillover effects and discuss its impacts on field experiments. We next discuss how to addresses this issue by improving the experimental design and post-experiment analysis.

You can download the PDF version of this tutorial here.

WINE’2021 Website link.

Co-organizers and Speakers

Table of Contents

Authors for the tutorial: Yuan Yuan and Tracy Xiao Liu

An introduction to the spillover effects in field experiments

Field experiments typically aim to quantify how an intervention (e.g., a new policy [1]) affects certain outcomes of all the population. With the popularity of online communities and market places, there has been an outbreak of online field experiments [2]. However, in many online and offline experiments, interference (or spillover effects) exists [3, 4]: a user’s outcome may be affected by the treatment assignments of other subjects; for within-subject experiments, the previous treatment assignment the subject received may affect the outcome at a later stage.

Imagine that a “powerful” policymaker wants to evaluate the impact of vaccines on reducing COVID-19 cases and they can “impose” people to get vaccinated. The experiment is to randomly assign some people to get vaccinated while others do not. There exists a strong spillover effect: people who get vaccinated also reduce the risk of their family and friends, while people who do not get vaccinated increase others’ risk level. More generally, if a large proportion of the population is assigned to receive vaccines, the observations in the control group will have a lower risk; similarly, if a large proportion of the population is assigned not to receive vaccines, the observations in the treatment group will have a higher risk. In this case, a comparison between the treatment and control group would underestimate the impact of the policy whereby everyone should receive vaccines. In the online setting, many controlled experiments face similar issues. For example, when a user is promoted with a discount coupon, the user may share this coupon with their friends who are assigned to other groups, which may decrease the purchase probability of their friends in the short term. This spillover effect may lead to an overestimate of the average treatment effect when we compare the difference in the purchase probability between the treatment and control groups. Generally speaking, without addressing spillover effects, we may over- or under-estimate the “global treatment effect” which describes the difference between the scenarios where everyone is treated versus non-treated.

With the presence of the interference or spillover effect, the conventional way of randomizing samples may be problematic [5, 6]. Intuitively, the spillover effect means the outcome of an observation is not only affected by their own treatment assignment, but also by the treatment assignments of other observations. The existence of spillover effects violates the stable unit treatment value assumption (SUTVA). Formally, SUTVA is defined as [7]

  1. The potential outcomes for any unit do not vary with treatments assigned to other units;

  2. For each unit, there are no different forms or versions of each unit level, which lead to different potential outcomes.

The presence of spillover effects violates the first condition – the potential outcome is affected by treatments assigned to other units [5, 8].

Here are more concrete examples of spillover effects:

This tutorial focuses on how to address such spillover effects when we implement experiments or analyze the experimental data.

Mitigating spillover effects by experimental designs

There are two main approaches to address spillover effects – improving the experimental design or improving analysis. Here we first discuss several types of experimental designs (i.e., the way of randomized treatment assignments).

Cluster randomization

Often spillover effects exist within a larger unit. For example, considering all elementary school students as the population, the treatment of deworming a student may only spill over to their classmates or schoolmates. Therefore, we can randomly assign treatments on the cluster level. In a school-level cluster randomization, all students in the same school will receive the same treatment assignments (deworm or not). By comparing students who are treated or not, we can measure the effect size with consideration of within-school spillover effects [13]. This experimental design is referred to as cluster randomization, which was first proposed in medical science but later rapidly adopted in many other fields [14, 15].

In the online setting, many platforms consider a city (county) as a “cluster.” For example, Uber conducted an experiment to test the effect of the introduction of the tipping mechanism. They chose 110 cities in the US and Canada as clusters and performed cluster level randomization. To improve the precision of estimation, they first match group cities in pairs according to their similarity and then assign one in a pair to treatment and the other to control [16].

Graph cluster randomization

This is a special case of cluster randomization in social networks. As mentioned previously, social contagion is widespread in various behaviors, indicating that the treatment of an individual likely affects the outcome of their network neighbors. In social networks, it is challenging to split a whole network into completely separate clusters. A way to address this issue is by implementing community detection algorithms (in graph theory, graph clustering) [17]. That is, a social network is split into relatively separate clusters. With this approach, most edges belong to the same cluster. We thus assign treatments such that all units in a cluster receive the same treatment. In this way, the spillover effects within each graph cluster (a.k.a. community) are taken into account. This method was first proposed by [18], and many improved versions have appeared [6, 19, 20, 21].

For example, Meta (formerly Facebook) reports that they actively employ graph cluster randomization on social networks [21]. A key challenge is the choice of graph cluster algorithms[22]. For example, [23] find that imbalanced graph clusters are typically superior in terms of the bias-variance tradeoff for graph cluster randomization.

Meanwhile, Linkedin Research pointed out several challenges of graph cluster randomization [24]. They find that if the network is so dense that a community detection algorithm cannot give satisfactory partitioning, graph cluster level randomization may fail to consider too many spillover effects across communities.

Bipartite experiments

Many platforms have two sided markets between consumers and suppliers. Examples include customers and deliverymen on food delivery apps or hosts and guests on lodging apps. The platforms may face a challenge of deciding whether a randomization should be implemented on the consumer or supplier level. Moreover, a treatment can be assigned at the consumer-supplier pair level, which is referred to as bipartite experiments [25, 26, 27].

There has been growing literature on designing and analyzing bipartite experiments, especially for two-sided markets. For example, [28] provides an approach to incorporate cluster randomization in bipartite experiments. Specifically, they use observational data on Airbnb to create clusters of similar listing, and perform randomization on the cluster level. [29] discusses when the platform should perform randomization on the customer end or the supplier end.

Switchback randomization

Sometimes the whole population cannot be satisfactorily split into many separate clusters. One solution is to implement within-subject experiments and randomize on the time level. For example, on a mobile app, the platform can randomly switch between two versions of the UI every hour or every day. Then the platform can compare user behavior between the hours (or days) with different versions displayed [12, 30].

For instance, DoorDash [31] uses this switchback experiment to test the effect of a pricing algorithm. However, large spillover effects (network interference), along with customer experience issues may occur. If two users who are close friends are assigned to different experimental groups, they may turn out to use the one with lower prices. Moreover, price discrimination produced by user-level randomization may hurt user experiences. These are the reasons why we conjecture DoorDash employs switchback experiments to detect the effect of a pricing algorithm. Specifically, the experiment setting switches back and forth every 30 minutes.

In addition, Kuaishou, a popular video-sharing mobile app, has its two-sided market between users and hosts. However, as reported by [32], their platform has strong spillover effects between hosts such that cluster randomization is not feasible. Therefore, they also use switchback experiments.

However, one challenge is the existence of the “carryover” effect. Previous experience of another version may affect the outcome in the current time period. One solution to this issue is by first implementing another experiment to detect the decay rate of carryover effects [12]. After this experiment, the researcher determines the time window for the switchback accordingly and implemented the switchback experiment.

Mitigating spillover effects by post-experiment analysis

After experiments are conducted, we can further mitigate the spillover effects by post-experiment analysis.

Bias-variance trade-off

In general, all solutions may involve a trade-off between bias and variance. Bias comes from the disregard of a great proportion of spillover effects. In the student deworming example, if there are many spillover effects across schools (e.g., many cross-school students play together off-school), we fail to consider a large proportion of spillover effects, and thus our estimation may be biased.

One solution is to have larger clusters (e.g., all schools in the same city receive the same treatment). In this way, the bias would be reduced as more spillover effects are taken into account. However, the tradeoff is the variance. As the cluster is larger, the number of clusters decreases, and our statistical power by comparing the treatment and control also decreases. Therefore, choosing a proper size for clusters is crucial for the trade-off between bias and variance [18].

Switchback experiments face the same trade-off. As the time window for each experimental period is wider, the bias is small as wider windows with potential carryover effects are taken into account. However, the variance increases with the number of available experimental periods [12].

Common assumptions used for considering spillover effects

With spillover effects, SUTVA does not hold anymore. Therefore, we need weaker assumptions when we apply analysis:

Using machine learning for complex spillover effects (interference)

Two main challenges remain for using assumptions for analyzing experimental data. First, some assumptions may be simplistic. For example, simply aggregating all spillover effects as “indirect effects” may lose the granularity of heterogeneous indirect effects (e.g., how many others are treated and who they are may influence the strength of spillovers). Second, strict assumptions may increase the chance of functional form misspecification. That is, the estimation of the treatment effect may be heavily biased if the assumption does not fit this specific experimental setting.

There is growing literature in utilizing machine learning for addressing network interference, which proposes flexible model specification. Here are two examples. First, [34] proposes regression adjustment methods–they convert functions of the treatment assignment vector (the treatment of all subjects) into features in machine learning, and thus addressing spillover effects turns into standard feature engineering in machine learning. [35] proposes another approach for addressing spillover effects in networks—they first use network motifs to generate treatment assignment vectors, and then propose the tree-based algorithm that automatically generates exposure conditions.

Future directions

In the future, there are a lot of things to explore for addressing spillover effects (interference) in online field experiments. First, while many studies discuss specific experimental design, fewer have investigated how to choose different designs – for example, how to decide on cluster randomization versus switchback randomization. Second, as mentioned in the machine learning section, contrary to conventional approaches where experimenters limit the relationships between treatment assignment vector for all subjects and the outcome by certain model assumptions, it is interesting to investigate how to design algorithms to automatically detect such relationships. Finally, with an increasing number of experiments performed by platforms, it is interesting to study how to collectively examine multiple experiments and obtain insights into experimental design and analysis.

Selected reading list for tutorial

[Introduction to online field experiments]

Chen, Yan, and Joseph Konstan. "Online field experiments: A selective survey of methods." Journal of the Economic Science Association 1.1 (2015): 29-42.

This paper presents an overview of the design and analysis for online field experiments. It covers representative studies from both economics and computer science.

[Empirical evidence for interference]

Muchnik, Lev, Sinan Aral, and Sean J. Taylor. "Social influence bias: A randomized experiment." Science 341.6146 (2013): 647-651.

This paper represents the literature on identifying empirical evidence of interference (social influence) between units.

[Cluster randomization]

Bharat K Chandar, Ali Hortaçsu, John A List, Ian Muir, and Jeffrey M Wooldridge. Design and analysis of cluster-randomized field experiments in panel data settings. National Bureau of Economic Research, 2019.

This paper examines best practices for estimating unit-level treatment effects in cluster-randomized field experiments and uses insights from their analysis to evaluate the effect of a nationwide tipping field experiment on Uber.

[Graph cluster randomization]

Ugander, Johan, et al. "Graph cluster randomization: Network exposure to multiple universes." Proceedings of the 19th ACM SIGKDD International Conference on Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining. 2013.

This paper proposed a novel approach to address spillover effects on large-scale social networks–graph cluster randomization. Here clusters are the graph clusters (communities) on networks

Pouget-Abadie, Jean, et al. "Testing for arbitrary interference on experimentation platforms." Biometrika 106.4 (2019): 929-940.

This paper proposes an approach to compare graph cluster randomization and individual level assignment. Graph cluster randomization is shown to largely reduce bias in estimating treatment effects.

[Bipartite experiments]

Holtz, David, et al. "Reducing interference bias in online marketplace pricing experiments." Available at SSRN 3583836 (2020).

This paper aims to address the interference on two-sided markets, which is a good example for bipartite experiments.

[Switchback randomization]

Bojinov, Iavor, David Simchi-Levi, and Jinglong Zhao. "Design and analysis of switchback experiments." Available at SSRN 3684168 (2020).

This paper derives the optimal design of switchback experiments under the assumption of limited period of carryover effects.

[Relaxing SUTVA]

Peter M Aronow and Cyrus Samii. "Estimating average causal effects under general interference, with application to a social network experiment." Ann Appl Stat (2017).

This paper presents a randomization-based framework that relaxes SUTVA under general interference between units.

[Incorporating machine learning]

Alex Chin. Regression adjustments for estimating the global treatment effect in experiments with interference. Journal of Causal Inference, 7(2), 2019.

This paper proposes a novel approach that allows researchers to convert the problem of detecting interference into a feature engineering problem.


Ya Xu, Nanyu Chen, Addrian Fernandez, Omar Sinno, and Anmol Bhasin. "From infrastructure to culture: A/B testing challenges in large scale social networks." In KDD(2015). 2227–2236.

From an industry perspective, this paper discusses challenges, best practices and pitfalls in evaluating results of online controlled experiments.


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