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4 Ways To Combat Personal Biases In Design

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Let’s face it — we all have personal biases. They are what makes us human and there is a good reason why we have them. They help us simplify information processing so that we can reach decisions quickly.

While we may be quick to point out other people’s biases, we often fail to recognise our own biases and how they can work against us. Psychologists call this the bias blind spot.

As designers, we pride ourselves in being an unbiased advocate for the user and are trusted to make objective design decisions based on user feedback. However, we often fail to acknowledge our biases. This actually makes us less objective than we think! (yes, designers suffer from the bias blind spot too).

What happens when we fail to recognise our own biases? We end up making decisions that harm rather than improve the user’s experience.

Common Biases that Designers Fall Prey To

The cognitive bias codex highlights a comprehensive list of cognitive biases that influence the way we perceive things, make decisions, and act. Here are four common cognitive biases that most designers will experience over the course of their career.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is known as the “super-villain” of all biases as it is the bias which designers are most susceptible to. It describes our tendency to seek, interpret, favour, and recall information that validates our existing beliefs. The danger with confirmation bias is that it may lead designers to downplay or even outright reject user feedback which contradicts their beliefs.

Moreover, confirmation bias makes us more susceptible to other cognitive biases (e.g clustering illusion and false causality bias) which can lead us to find non-existent patterns and causal relationships in order to confirm our hypotheses. It also makes us prone to asking leading questions so that we receive responses that validate our beliefs.

Framing Effect

The framing effect describes how we tend to make decisions based on how information is presented rather than on the information itself. When we fall prey to the framing effect, our design decisions may be influenced by how the user data is presented.

For example, a study by Nielsen Norman Group found that 51% of designers felt that a certain search function should be redesigned when told that “4 out of 20 users did not find the search function”. However, when told that “16 out of 20 users found the search function”, only 39% of designers called for a redesign. Though both statements describe the same result, different conclusions were reached based on how the statement was presented.

IKEA Effect

Ever heard of the phrase “Don’t fall in love with your idea?” This is a common piece of advice given to designers to warn them against the IKEA effect, which is our tendency to place a disproportionately high value on the things we create. Furthermore, the more resources we invest into building something, the harder it is to abandon it. Like confirmation bias, the IKEA effect may lead to overstating data that validates our existing ideas while dismissing those that don’t.

False Consensus Bias

The false consensus bias describes our tendency to assume that most people think like we do. As designers, we often can’t help but view the product from our own perspective and therefore can’t see why others would think any other way. When this happens, we fail to recognise and acknowledge our assumptions, causing us to overestimate the number of people who will agree with our designs. The danger with this is that it may lead us to avoid testing our ideas altogether.

Overcoming Personal Biases in Design

Our personal biases can creep into all areas of the design process — from user research and problem definition to prototyping and testing. Although we cannot completely eliminate them, we can take steps to limit their influence on our decisions. Combat your biases with these steps:

Know Your Bias

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” ― Sun Tzu

Overcoming biases first starts with “knowing the enemy” — understanding the different types of biases and how they can affect your decision making. Next, reflect on the biases you are most susceptible to and when they are likely to happen so that you can start taking steps to overcome them.

Understanding cognitive biases and how they affect the way people behave also has an added benefit of helping you understand your users better. This enables you to design more desirable and inclusive products and services.

To find out more about the common types of cognitive biases, this infographic by Business Insider is a great place to start. You can also refer to the cognitive bias codex for a more comprehensive list of cognitive biases.

List and Challenge Your Assumptions

Avoid false consensus bias by acknowledging the assumptions that you are making about users’ preferences and behaviours. You can start being more self-aware of your assumptions by listing them in a Word document as you are brainstorming solutions to a problem or while you are designing a product.

For example, say you have a brilliant idea about a new feature. Start by asking yourself, “What will users think about this feature?” and “Why might users find this feature useful?”. Write your answers down — these are your assumptions! This list of assumptions will then form the basis of your user research objectives and questions.

When testing your assumptions, it is also useful to adopt a mindset that seeks to challenge your assumptions rather than seek to prove them right. I find that this helps to prevent confirmation bias and makes you less prone to asking leading questions.

Check for Leading Questions

A leading question is a type of question that has an implication so that respondents are prompted to give the desired response. Leading questions should be avoided because they make it hard or awkward for users to share what they really think, resulting in inaccurate user feedback.

When we are affected by confirmation bias or the IKEA effect, we are more likely to ask leading questions (often unintentionally) that confirm our biases and assumptions. For example, you may strongly believe that a search function should be included in your product. A common question to ask might then be, “What did you find useful about the search function?”. This question is problematic because it prompts the user to give reasons on why the search function is useful although he/she might not think that it is useful in the first place.

While we cannot completely eliminate our biases, we can keep them from affecting the accuracy of user feedback by being mindful of leading questions in surveys or when running user interviews.

Below are some tips on how you can avoid asking the the user leading questions:

  • Ask open-ended questions that allow users to freely express their views
  • Do not embed assumptions about what the user feels and thinks
  • Avoid suggesting answers or solutions
  • Offer opposing adjectives (e.g. what do you find useful or not useful?)

Hear from Multiple Perspectives

Another effective way to combat personal biases is to hear from multiple perspectives.

As a general rule of thumb, it is a best practice to seek feedback on your designs whenever possible. Aside from users, seek feedback from other people like product owners, developers, and fellow designers within and outside of your product team. Although these people do not represent the user, they may be able to identify your inherent biases and assumptions.

You can also consider getting a neutral party — someone who is not involved in the development of the product — to test your ideas. Doing so limits the introduction of biases during usability testing sessions as a neutral party is less susceptible to biases like the IKEA effect or confirmation bias.

And finally, when possible, try to involve members of your product team when reviewing findings from usability testing / user interview sessions. You can do this by getting team members to observe the sessions remotely before reviewing the key observations and findings together. This helps to prevent biases from influencing the conclusions drawn from such studies.

Final Thoughts

Personal biases have and will continue to shape and influence the decisions that we make. When we fail to acknowledge our own biases, they can lead us to make wrong design decisions that harm the user experience.

While we are unable to completely eliminate our biases, we can take steps to limit their impact on our ability to make objective decisions. This starts with being more self-aware of our biases and understanding when we are most susceptible to them. We can then limit their influence over our decisions by actively recognising and challenging our assumptions, checking for leading questions, and hearing from multiple perspectives.