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March 9, 2017 /

Recognizing and Overcoming Cognitive Bias in Product Design

How do you define good design? It should be a simple question that finds its answer without too much thought. We all know what we like. And that is good design, right? Good design conforms to our views and to our understanding of how something should look and behave; but if you think more about it, the answer starts to become complex. What about other people and their experiences and interests? If we take them into account, then good design becomes a relative term which means different things to different people and changing at times based on context of use and each individual’s experience.

So how can designers create beautiful and usable products that delight not one or two, but millions of customers? If we’re all influenced by our own self-interests and past experiences, how can we recognize these biases and minimize their impact?

One way to do this is to constantly analyze ourselves. Unfortunately it’s easier to see biases in others than in us.

So to reduce the impact of our biases, we first need to admit their existence and then think twice before making decisions— especially when our assumptions are based on limited information, self interest, overconfidence, or past experiences. Why these factors specifically? Because we usually make decisions based on at least one of these.

Let’s take an Agile process as an example, as it’s one of the most popular development processes that incorporates design practices:

In an Agile process, design begins before all the requirements are known — so all the information isn’t available at hand. This increases the risk of bias towards half-baked solutions.

An Agile process is iterative and incremental, each iteration lasting between one and four weeks — these short time frames require us to design quickly and at a high standard in order to meet sprint planning sessions. Again, when time works against us and we don’t do enough discovery, we are prone to make premature decisions.

An Agile process requires a cross-functional team to work in all functions, from analysis to design, from development to testing. Therefore it requires self-confident and experienced team members that have shared skill sets. And the more experienced the designer, the more likely is he to rely on naturally occurring biases when making design decisions. And that’s mainly due to overconfidence.

3 Cognitive Biases that Impact Decision Making in Product Design

1. The Bandwagon effect. A cognitive bias in which we choose something primarily because other people chose before regardless of our own beliefs, which we may ignore or override.

While we’re often unaware of the ’bandwagon effect,’ it happens in product design all the time. It’s often seen nowadays when designers adopt Material Design as a solution to any design problem regardless of industry, be it e-commerce, travel, or even banking.

The overuse of Material Design is a perfect example of designer’s conforming to standards to fit in with the rest of the community. Unfortunately, by standardizing design to the same set of components, we reduce creativity and we promote monopolies that end up disconnected from what users actually need.

2. Anchoring. Relying heavily on the first piece of information that becomes available through research or testing can also be detrimental.

This bias can be seen in action with the RITE method, an iterative testing method. When using this method for testing, changes to the design are made as soon as the usability test reveals a problem. After observing the behavior of the first participant, the team improves the concept before the next round of testing starts.

The tendency here is to focus on a specific problem as it arises, although it may just be an isolated result. Gathering more feedback would likely be better for an informed decision taken later on. But by anchoring on one result we might discard features and change direction without due diligence.

3. Confirmation bias. With this bias, the tendency is to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms our preexisting beliefs or hypotheses. And at the same time we give less consideration to alternative possibilities.

When we search and interpret results to match our initial view of the solution we are guilty of falling into its trap. We find ourselves searching for evidence to confirm our belief or to prove somebody else wrong.

Are Cognitive Biases Always Harmful?

Not always. It’s important to note that sometimes these biases are helpful as a designer needs to constantly make product-related decisions. Therefore we often have to rely on our previous experiences in order to meet deadlines. These shortcuts can cause problems if we’re not aware of them and it leads us to make premature decisions that aren’t based on any research.

How Can We Minimize the Impact of Cognitive Biases in Our Decision Making?

As I mentioned earlier, we first have to see them in ourselves. To facilitate this introspection into our decision making process we need to ask ourselves questions.

This is actually how I reveal my own confirmation biases. I always ask questions of myself why I’m inclined to a certain solution, and many times I expose these biases, well camouflaged as confidence and experience.

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Join the discussion

  • By Philip Harper - 1:28 PM on March 16, 2017  

    This is a very interesting article, but has stirred up something of an existential UX nightmare. Heuristics suggest a burger menu on mobile would be a good solution—but how do I know if this is best practise or best practise bias?!
    Thought provoking to say the least.