The Psychological Pitfalls Designers Face (and how to avoid them)

Design is a challenging activity involving designers, stakeholders, target customers, and perceived users. As the design process unfolds, psychological pitfalls can produce less than ideal solutions.

Here we identify 14 pitfalls and some practical solutions to avoid them in the future.

During Discovery

A common first step in the design process is interviewing customers and users to discover their needs, goals, and frustrations. The designer often brings his own assumptions into this process and is therefore susceptible to the following biases.

#1 Stereotyping

Stereotypes, both positive and negative, are the mental models that we use to navigate through our social interactions. When we expect a member of a group to have certain characteristics without having actual information about that individual, then the stereotype can have negative consequences.

Solution: Try keeping an open mind and expect to be surprised.

#2 Labeling

As designers, we create frameworks that include nomenclature. The specific words that we use to describe or classify can determine or influence the self-identity and behavior of individuals.

Solution: When creating frameworks, use labels that are respectful and encouraging.

#3 Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is a powerful tendency to favor information that confirms our beliefs or hypotheses.

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” is a quote that reflects our tendency to analyze data in a manner that confirms our hypotheses. This pitfall is present in qualitative research as well.

A related bias is called the “false consensus effect” where people overestimate the degree to which others agree with them.

Solution: Don’t ask leading questions. Begin with open-ended questions. and only follow up with closed-ended questions to clarify initial responses.

#4 Conversational Narcissism

People tend to steer the conversation away from others and toward themselves.

“Enough about me, what do YOU think about me?”

Solution: Be an active listener. Show interest without injecting thoughts with your body language, facial expressions, and minimal encouragers.

#5 Anchoring or Focalism

The tendency to rely too heavily, or “anchor,” on one trait or piece of information when making decisions.

From Dumb and Dumber
Lloyd: Hit me with it! Just give it to me straight! I came a long way just to see you Mary, just… The least you can do is level with me. What are my chances? 
Mary: Not good. 
Lloyd: You mean, not good like one out of a hundred? 
Mary: I’d say more like one out of a million. 
Lloyd: So you’re telling me there’s a chance. YEAH!

Solution: Try to resist coming up with design solutions early. If you do think of ideas, jot them down and then put them away until later.

During Design

#6 Self-referential Design

A common pitfall, especially in an organization, is designing for oneself rather than for the audience. Stakeholders, developers, and innocent bystanders will come to you with suggestions for how they would solve the problem.

No facts exist inside the building — only opinions. –Steve Blank, Entrepreneur

Solution: Show appreciation for the input. Guide them to frame their input in terms of what user need or goal they’re addressing and then work with them to design an experiment to test their idea.

#7 Escalation of Commitment

The phenomenon where people justify increased investment in a decision, based on the cumulative prior investment, despite new evidence suggesting that the cost, starting today, of continuing the decision outweighs the expected benefit.

Solution: Don’t throw good money after bad. Or better yet, don’t let it get that far–develop a “lean design” approach where design solutions are considered experiments whose hypotheses should be proven on real users.

Stakeholder Pitfalls

To this point, we’ve covered biases among designers. On the other side of the table, during discovery and interviews, stakeholders are susceptible to biases as well. There are things designers can do to mitigate these biases.

#8 Self-monitoring & The Herd Mentality

People tend to closely monitor themselves in order to ensure appropriate or desired public appearances.

They observe the actions of others and then make the same choice that the others have made, independently of their own private understanding and beliefs.

Solution: Interview stakeholders separately when possible. Then resolve and unify the corporate vision to get internal buy-in.

#9 Availability Heuristic & The Mere-exposure Effect

People estimate what is more likely by what is more available in memory, which is biased toward vivid, unusual, or emotionally charged examples.

They also have the tendency to express undue liking for things merely because of familiarity with them.

Solution: When a stakeholder suggests a solution based on availability or mere-exposure, dive deeper by asking why or how the suggested solution is important and how it addresses their goals.

User Pitfalls During Discovery

Understanding customers’ and users’ attitudes, aptitudes, frustrations, needs, and goals are at the core of good design. However, users have their own insecurities and biases that affect what they tell you.

The following five biases have a common solution.

#10 Dunning–Kruger Effect

This is a funky, meta-bias, but it applies to people at all levels.

You’re only as smart as you are… An effect in which people fail to realize their shortcomings because they lack the perspective to distinguish between competence and incompetence.

#11 Overconfidence Effect

Excessive confidence in one’s own answers to questions. For example, for certain types of questions, answers that people rate as “99% certain” turn out to be wrong 40% of the time.

#12 Hawthorne Effect (aka Observer Effect)

A phenomenon whereby workers improve or modify an aspect of their behavior in response to a change in their environment.

#13 The Pygmalion Effect

The phenomenon whereby the greater the expectation placed upon people, the better they perform.

#14 Worse-than-average Effect

A tendency to believe ourselves to be worse than others at tasks which are difficult.

Solution: Whenever possible, in addition to interviewing users, observe them performing their tasks in their natural habitat. This is a key component to effective ethnographic research.

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