Confirmation Bias and the Dark Underbelly of Empathic, Predictive Design

What happens when an entire generation grows up having their views and perspectives mirrored back at them by the brands and services they interact with every day? I’m willing to bet it looks a lot like the increased polarization we’re experiencing now; i.e. the lack of objectivity, an unwillingness to listen, “whataboutisms” a whole lot of finger-pointing.

In the digital world we talk a LOT about design systems and empathy. Design thinking, service design, empathetic design, human-centred design, agile and iterative development… these are all frameworks and methodologies aimed at making the products and services we use more intuitive and “human” (i.e. less technical). This is good for people and good for business. A seemingly perfect win win.

Today, these systems are considered best practice, and you’d be hard-pressed to find an agency that doesn’t proudly state their ability to craft transformational, human-friendly experiences that connect brands to customers in a meaningful way.

While I am completely sold on the processes listed above––and follow many of them at Massive Media––I’m beginning to wonder if this boost in polarization is the unintended butterfly effect of well-intentioned companies customizing experiences based on a users’ preferences. The best example I can think of is a parent that spoils their child, entertaining their every whim and affirming their every thought. We all know at least one parent like that. As well-meaning as they are, the end result is usually a terrible kid struggling to understand why they have a hard time operating in the real world.

Replace that doting parent with Google, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Foodora and a boatload of other tech companies tripping over themselves to create more intuitive, personalized experiences. And, instead of a child, we’re talking about an entire generation that’s had their digital experiences — news, social media, products, food, music, TV––all filtered and delivered based on their individual thoughts and views.

“The thing that makes newspapers so fundamentally fascinating — that serendipity — can be calculated now. We can actually produce it electronically. The power of individual targeting — the technology will be so good it will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them.”
— Eric Schmidt, Google (2010)

This is happening now. You read about it described as online echo chambers or filter bubbles that foster confirmation bias. And, if left unchecked or challenged, the ramifications have very real––and potentially frightening–– social, cultural and political consequences. (see Brexit and Trump)

The answer to this problem? Education, diversity and the introduction of cognitive dissonance. We become a more tolerant, empathetic society by exposing ourselves to competing ideas and perspectives that differ from our own. That’s a hard pill to swallow for an industry that’s engaged in a preverbal arms race to create the most intuitive, personalized experience possible. Introducing this kind of dissonance (good friction) runs entirely opposite from many of the principles guiding today’s leading businesses. Therein lies the rub.

I imagine very few CEOs will get excited about the idea of introducing friction and dissonance into their products for the betterment of society.

Obviously, our influence is limited to our own respective products, but hopefully by discussing confirmation bias in the design phase we can find a balance between crafting remarkable experiences and fostering tolerance.

The next best feature or digital experience you release shouldn’t come at the expense of objectivity. After all, if the ultimate goal is to move the needle towards a more empathic world, shouldn’t that be the centre of our decision-making?

I’d love to hear your thoughts below. Has confirmation bias factored into your product’s design? If so, what trade-offs have you made as a result? Should product designers build good friction directly into their products?

Is objectivity the responsibility of the product designer?

Come at me.

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