How cognitive bias can affect UX designers

Unconscious decisions, however small, can have a big impact on UX design. Here is how those biases can affect UX designers

UX designers have to make countless decisions both important and innocuous not only during the prototyping process but throughout UX design development.

These decisions, however, are never as objective as we would like even if we have facts and figures to back our UX design choices. Even the most level-headed, rational and objective designers succumb to cognitive bias.

Cognitive bias in UX can make or break a decision which can result in a positive or negative impact in your designs and ultimately on your users. It pays to know what cognitive bias is and the unwitting role it plays when crafting pleasurable user experiences and beautiful user interfaces.

What is cognitive bias?

Frequently we make errors in judgement, thinking and memory. To err is human, after all. Cognitive bias is deviation from the rational norm, often in an illogical fashion. What happens is we create our own little world — a subjective world — where reason goes out the window in favor of our unconscious biases which can result in poor decisions, even if we think they’re the best decisions. There are hundreds of different types of cognitive bias.

Innovation for innovation’s sake is an example of a cognitive bias. Someone who champions a particular innovation without understanding, realizing or taking into account its limitations and promotes it nevertheless has fallen victim to bias. It’s essentially overvaluing the usefulness and undervaluing the limitations of a certain element. This is known as pro-innovation bias. We’re looking at you, Apple.

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How does cognitive bias affect UX designers?

Since UX designers are also human (when they’ve had their morning coffee, at least), they are susceptible to cognitive bias. But in which ways do cognitive biases affect UX designers and how can they overcome them?

Let’s take a look at some cognitive biases and how they can crop up when designing interactive prototypes, mobile apps and websites.

Anchoring bias

Also known as focalism or more colloquially: jumping to conclusions. This is essentially the trait of anchoring to an idea or bit of information too heavily thereby becoming reliant on it (most likely because it’s the first piece of information you’ve read/seen/understood), ignoring other information which could be as beneficial when making a decision.

How does anchoring affect design?

The initial prototype that you create for a website may look a certain way and through the design process becomes something very different in the end. When you present it, another member of the team might say something similar to “I viewed it more in this way” or “I thought it would look more like this”. This is anchoring bias and it can affect your judgement.

That’s why when you present several designs or hi-fi wireframes, most people will be comparing those designs to the first design they saw because that one has more value. A good way to negate that is to try and show multiple designs so that no one design has a higher value from the outset. You can have team members comment directly on anything you create in Justinmind so their feedback is automatic and easy to put into practice.

The IKEA effect

Aptly named, the IKEA effect is when we place disproportional value on something that we ourselves have created. So when you successfully place every screw into a Billy bookcase, you’re going to place more value on it than if had you bought the bookcase pre-built.

How does the IKEA effect impact design?

Say you pour your heart and soul into an interactive prototype. You spend hours getting the composition right, the perfect color palette, the UI components — everything. Then you’re done. You love it. Why wouldn’t you? It’s yours! Therein lies your problem. When we emotionally invest ourselves into our work (which is normal, don’t sweat it), we run the risk of being unable to see flaws.

When you create something, invest time and effort but don’t invest too much of yourself. No one wants a bruised ego so learning to accept constructive criticism from team members will allow you to be more objective in your designing and prototyping.

Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is when we seek out results or information that already conform to our worldview. It’s people believing what they want to believe even in the face of stark evidence.

How does confirmation bias affect UX design?

Let’s say you created a cool call-to-action button that you think will work wonders on your website. But the conversions aren’t coming. You might carry out some user testing in order to see what the problem is. Because you love the button, you might dismiss data or feedback that goes against your initial assumption.

In instances like that, a good way to avoid confirmation bias, according to Teo Ching, is with a healthy dose of skepticism and treat all data equally, not favoring some results over others.

Overcoming your cognitive biases

As we design user interfaces we should keep in mind the idea of cognitive bias and know that we’re susceptible to it. This step is important because when you know that it’s inevitable, it can help you be more mindful when making important UX decisions. Now it isn’t possible to know every bias and avoid it. That would require too much work. But awareness is good step. Having a set of principles to guide you, like the Gestalt principles, can also help in avoiding any biases.

Consult with colleagues and other members on your team frequently so you don’t become too reliant on your own worldview. Using joint evaluation in this way is beneficial when you design something because all too often we design for ourselves and our audience can slip to the back of our mind. After all one designer’s great user experience may be one user’s nightmare. UI libraries and kits are another way to avoid biases because many UI libraries have been created to a standard set of principles by expert designers — of course, be careful how you use these. They may have been crafted by experts but implementing them is another story.

Before you even begin to start designing something, think clearly about your goals and objectives. Setting these from the outset can be a great reminder when you’re in the middle of creating a mobile app or website. Sort them in order of priority and make them specific. When you lose focus, let the objectives be your guide — not your biases.