“It is the peculiar quality of a fool to perceive the faults of others and to forget his own. You can’t clear your own fields while you’re counting the rocks on your neighbor’s farm.” – Cicero
When we lose a hand at poker, it’s bad luck, but when we finally win the pot with a pair of twos, it’s proof of our amazing ability to bluff. When a stranger does a face-plant on the sidewalk, we ask, “Walk much?” but when we trip over the same uneven pavement we shout, “The city should fix that! ” And, while we’re sure we could be the next Zuckerberg if we really put our minds to it, we know deep down that our friend’s dream to beat Elon to Mars is pretty unrealistic.
These are all biases–those of the self-serving, actor-observer, and optimism types, to be precise.1 These examples demonstrate how lenient we are when assessing ourselves and how judgmental we are toward other people.
Does this kind of bias affect the way we design products and processes? Absolutely! Let’s look at an example.
You’ve created a new budgeting app with your own needs in mind. It’s amazing. All it requires is entering a few numbers at the end of each day. It ensures that all your financial goals and consumer dreams will come true. Then the day of its big debut arrives and… no one downloads it.
Why not? The answer seems obvious: everyone must be too lazy to log their numbers, too unmotivated to stay on financial track, or too uneducated to see the value in long term planning.
Perhaps a closer look at the application is in order. Is it really so easy to use? Or is it only easy for you, the creator, to navigate its complex menus and sophisticated dashboards? Does the app provide planning that anyone with any goal would find useful? Is using it on a daily basis really feasible? What about you? Did you stop using your own app because you were “too busy,” while others were definitely “too lazy”?
When we blame behavior on personality traits (people are stupid, lethargic and unmotivated) instead of on the situational factors (the app is complicated, inconvenient and ineffective) it’s called the fundamental attribution error.2 Biases like these may protect our egos, but they’re responsible for an awful lot of bad designs.
But if you know about these biases, you can be sure to avoid them, right?
Not so fast.
Research shows that we tend to remain blind to our own biases even when they’re pointed out to us. In fact, 85% of people think that they are less biased than the average person.3 That’s known as the Bias Blind Spot. Obviously, that math doesn’t add up.
Even well-trained professionals are influenced by the very biases they should be most aware of. In one study, judges were presented with sample criminal cases and asked if they thought the sentence would be more or less than either one year or three years.4 Each case was identical, but when the judges were primed with the three-year question, they delivered longer sentences than those primed with one year. That simple difference in wording biased their decisions! We expect judges to make their rulings based on nothing but the relevant facts of a case but the research shows otherwise. This simple “anchoring” bias is only one of many biases plaguing the legal system, which is also affected by racial, gender, and religious biases.
So during the design process, consider these tips to help you overcome the challenges of bias:
- Assume that your great idea at least 3 critical flaws that you’re likely blind to. Take on the role of an investigator and relentlessly hunt down those flaws before they tank your project.
- As a designer, when you find yourself feeling frustrated with your audience, take a moment to acknowledge your own “fundamental attribution error” that may be preventing you from seeing better solutions.
- Reframe your emotional reaction. It’s likely a sign that you’re about to uncover something critically important.
- Test your ideas against reality early and often so your own biases get exposed, giving you time to course correct.
The reality is, in order to solve tough problems, we need to work hard to minimize the impact of our biases, and non-judgmentally design to accommodate the biases in those we serve.
- How Cognitive Biases Influence How You Think and Act, Very Well Mind, 2018
- Fundamental Attribution Error, SimplyPsychology, 2018
- Bias Blind Spot: Structure, Measurement, and Consequences, Management Science, 2015
- Playing Dice With Criminal Sentences: The Influence of Irrelevant Anchors on Experts’ Judicial Decision Making, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2006