Cognitive Biases in UX Design – What Are They?
Have you ever seen somebody blame their failures on external factors, not seeing their own fault? Or ignore a risk due to high optimism? Perhaps you witnessed someone misjudging a situation due to looking from only their point of view? All of these are examples of cognitive biases.
A cognitive bias is nothing more than a simplification, a type of mental shortcut that leads people to false conclusions. It can be caused by various factors, such as:
While in some cases cognitive biases help us, especially when coping with everyday situations, in the end they lead us to irrational, often absurd interpretations of the information we receive. Take a look at a really simple example from everyday life:
Let’s say you read statistics that 60% of car accidents were caused by men and 40% were caused by women. The initial conclusion is that men are worse or more reckless drivers, right? Well, I would say that this statistic only proves that there are more male drivers. What’s the truth? We don’t know – we don’t have enough data. To draw up conclusions we would need to at least know how many men and women have their driver’s license, not to mention that it would be best to learn how often they drive, what is the average number of km covered by a man and a woman, etc. So, should we base our opinions and actions on such statistics? No. But we often do. Why? Because we fall into a cognitive bias – we understand these statistics through our own beliefs and opinions.
Cognitive biases pose a major threat to UX design, as they make it less objective. As a result, the final product may simply be unintuitive for many or even a majority of the users. This, on the other hand, deters potential users and impacts the overall ROI and profitability of the whole product. But how does it happen and become so severe?
Well, for starters, a cognitive bias may make you prioritize a wrong problem, thus limiting the number of resources that will be deployed to deal with actual ones. Secondly, it can affect the way you plan your user research, and lure you into choosing wrong objectives, methodology or even success metrics. Finally, even if these two didn’t happen, it might lead you to wrong conclusions.
To add to that, it’s extremely difficult to pave all cognitive biases out of your UX design process. Try as you can, a few of them will always make their way into the final product. However, there are two efforts that you can undertake to alleviate the consequences.
Confirmation bias was partially illustrated at the beginning of this article, in the car accident example. The idea behind it is simple – we see exactly what we want to see. This means interpreting any information through the filter of our own beliefs.
The main problem in this bias is that it leads to making decisions on inaccurate or incomplete data. So, how to deal with it?
In this case, the best idea is to always question yourself: am I right? Can I look at this from a different angle? You should also always base your decision on more than one source of information.
Brainstorms are also a great way to deal with this bias. Through them, you give more people the opportunity to speak and expose any cognitive biases that snuck into your UX design process. After all, it’s highly unlikely that everybody in one group will have the same beliefs and thus the same bias affecting them when discussing a particular issue.
This bias is caused by our tendency to perceive our point of view, behavior and judgements as common, when it is not always so. It can lead to making false assumptions about the users, thus designing a UX that isn’t tailored to the target audience. So, what can you do to avoid it?
Basically, you should involve testing as frequently as possible. This way, you will have a true insight into your target group’s approach towards the solutions you wish to implement, and you will be able to look at the design from your audience’s POV.
The third possible cognitive bias that could affect your UX design is the optimism bias. It’s pretty simple in nature: it’s the feeling that we have higher chances to succeed than others, despite the risks. This makes us ignore potential threats and undertake risky decisions as a result.
To deal with optimism bias, you should focus on analyzing the risk of your UX-related decisions. This way, you will actively identify the potential problems and this will force you to find solutions – you won’t be able to ignore a list of issues on paper.
The framing effect (or bias) is a topic widely studied in psychology. In principle, it describes the effect of context on the decisions we make: if you are presented with data in a positive setting, you will be positively framed and thus more likely to make a subjective decision, and so is with negative connotations. It’s the classic glass is half full/empty dilemma – if you say that the glass is half full, you evoke a feeling that there’s quite a lot of water in it and you’re lucky; if you say that it’s half empty, you create the impression that there’s insufficient water and you need more.
How to avoid this bias? You need to present data and ask questions in a non-leading, neutral way. So, instead of saying that the glass is half full or half empty, you can say that a 333 ml glass has 166,5 ml of water in it.
If you have ever been interested in poker, you probably realize that what distinguishes great players from average ones is that they know when to fold – even if they already invested a large sum of chips. It is so, because the best players realize that chasing might lose them even more chips. But, if it’s often better and we know about it, why do less experience players still tend to make the mistake of chasing? Because of the sunk cost fallacy.
The sunk cost fallacy is a cognitive bias causing people to believe that if they had put enough resources (time, effort or money), giving up would mean wasting them. In the end, it leads to putting even more resources into something that is bound to fail. It’s a common issue in UX design, however they are ways to prevent this bias from affecting your projects.
To combat the sunk cost fallacy, you need to combine two solutions: reliable, extensive analytics and clear success metrics. This way, you will have clear data on whether the direction in which you head with your UX or its particular element are actually going to pay off. Hence, you’ll be able to abandon them in case of poor results, before pouring even more resources into them.
Are you thinking about a specific topic and great examples come to your mind? Did you decide to base your decisions on them? Then you suffered from availability bias.
This cognitive issue has its roots in our brains’ tendency to simplify information. Whenever you evaluate a particular area or topic, your brain suggests the most recent or available information that it stores in your memory, driving your decision-making before you even consider the subject in detail. This usually leads to wrong conclusions, and what’s worse – designing UX solutions based on them.
How to avoid this bias? Don’t make decisions on the go – make sure that your process includes time to research each topic, concept or method and give yourself and your team at least a day to consider your decisions before acting on them.
Psychology and UX design are an inseparable pair, and the way in which cognitive biases can impact the latter proves that. They can impact your UX design significantly if you don’t undertake the right precautions. Therefore, it’s crucial that you learn the different types of cognitive biases and the strategies to overcome them, and conduct UX audits and analyses regularly. Only through this can you ensure that your UX design will be perfected, thus generating as many conversions as possible.
Cognitive biases impact your decision-making, so they might lead you to erroneous conclusions, thus ineffective UX solutions that will discourage users from your website or app.
There are two key efforts that you can undertake to deal with cognitive biases: improving your design process with strategies preventing each type of cognitive bias and conducting a UX audit. Learning about biases and implementing effective strategies can enhance objectivity, while a UX audit by an unbiased party helps identify and eliminate errors before product launch.
You’ll find tens of different cognitive biases, and their names might often depend on the source. The ones we mentioned above are among those which have the most impact on UX design.
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