from Biases in Sprints Workshop @ #sprintcon18

What Triggers Biases in Sprints?

In my youth, I firmly believed in superstitions. If a black cat happened to cross my path, I would literally turn around and find another route regardless of how long the detour took. I believed in the popular myth that if a black cat crosses your path, bad things would happen to you. On top of that, I would also pay extra care when handling mirrors because I believed breaking a mirror would cause 7 years of bad luck, and I would also hope for rain on my wedding day so that I could secure a healthy and happy marriage. Well, I’ll let you guess if it rained or not…

What I’m trying to say is that although I consider myself a very rational and logical person, I still carry these widely held superstitions with me, deeply rooted in my subconscious mind. I also know that even if extensive research was conducted to prove these beliefs wrong, 7 out of 10 Romanians would still believe that breaking a mirror brings bad luck or that a little rain on their wedding day would seal a happy marriage. How do we explain this behavior?

Here is how it works.

Scientists believe that we are hardwired to delude ourselves. We tend to overestimate the importance of events that we can easily remember and underestimate the importance of events we can’t — meaning that if a black cat crosses our path and then something negative happens to us on that same day, we are likely to overestimate the importance of the negative event. If a black cat was to cross our path every single day without any seemingly negative impact, we would probably not even recall it. This phenomenon is caused by our brain attempting to protect us from the danger of the unknown. It offers us a mental shortcut or rule of thumb by which we make judgments or predictions, and it’s called a cognitive bias. The theory was introduced in the 1970s by Nobel Prize-winning researchers Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, but what is important to remember about biases is the following:

we are all biased
biases are unconscious
biases help us process complex information and make rapid decisions

There are no black cats in design sprints. So, what triggers biases?

Anxiety and Stress

It’s a well-known fact that when we are stressed or anxious, we are less objective. For most of us, when we have a big project with impossible deadlines or we know that our performance evaluation is just around the corner, we are simply not as rational as we would be otherwise. In this instance, our negative emotions inhibit our rationalization.

from Biases in Sprints Workshop @ #sprintcon18

But, how would this play out in a design sprint scenario?

Well, on Monday, the Decider could simply kick-off the design sprint workshop by announcing to the team that “by the end of the week, you will go directly into production with this prototype. So, it had better be an exceptional one!”, or, the co-founder could stress that “there will be no more funding if this design sprint doesn’t work. So you will all need to find new jobs!”. These are just two examples I have witnessed in the past, and what was the outcome? I will share this with you in my next article: “How biases impact design sprints”.

Ambiguity and lack of clarity

When something is not well defined, our brains tend to refer back to our own mental models and tries to define it of its own accord. It’s like seeing this text: des_gn s_rint — our brain will fill in the gaps with information it has learned elsewhere.

from Biases in Sprints Workshop @ #sprintcon18

In a Design Sprint, the most ambiguous moment is actually an entire day: Monday. On Monday, the team can receive conflicting information from experts, from other team members, or even from research results. Essential information might be missing completely, in which case the team would start relying on assumptions and past experiences in order to make sense of it all.

Pressure and distractions

Time pressure plays a key role in activating biases. Let’s think about the medical field — in the ER, medics need to make split-second decisions in life and death situations. There is no time for them to analyze, change their mind, or ask for multiple opinions. Another example can be seen in HR, where recruiters might have hundreds of resumes to evaluate and are also pressured to make quick decisions. Biases such as candidates being too old, too young, too far away, or having two small children all impact if the resume goes into either the yes or no pile.

from Biases in Sprints Workshop @ #sprintcon18

In a design sprint, biases are triggered every time we are compelled to make a decision — use the dot sticker voting method to reach decisions in a short time frame. When we need to decide on the sprint questions, choose a target on the map and then decide on the solution or ideate individually, brainstorm as a group, or storyboard quickly.

Schemas, stereotypes

Schemas are cognitive structures that guide our understanding of the world, usually making us perceive things more accurately than we would otherwise and prompting us to behave more appropriately (Richard E. Nisbett). We have schemas for everything: for family, for school, for trains, for a board meeting, for a party, for peace, for war, for a judge, for a drug addict, for a butterfly, etc. Schemas not only guide our understanding of the world, but they also influence our behavior. We would behave in a particular way in front of a judge but in a different way at a party. Schemas also shape our memory — based on our schemas, we are likely to remember different things about the same events.

from Biases in Sprints Workshop @ #sprintcon18

With regards to design sprints, schemas define the way in which we interpret data — what we find notable when listening to experts, what we will remember as relevant, how we understand the sketches, and what conclusions we draw when seeing the user testing.

I believe that by recognizing the key moments when biases might occur, we can help raise awareness of our own biases which will eventually lead to us making better decisions.

PS: I no longer turn back because of black cats crossing my path, and I still enjoy a happy marriage despite a very sunny wedding day.

Up Next: How biases impact design sprints