Mitigating the Authority Bias

When Conducting User Research

As product designers and user experience professionals, we need to be aware of how cognitive biases impact our research and testing. Every Wednesday, the Flexport design team will breakdown user experience research techniques so you can apply them in your own design process.


In Daily Life

We all give special deference to advice from important people in our life — parents, mentors, managers, and even leaders in our industry. Yet, we need to be careful not to inherently trust the views of these authority figures outside their realm of expertise.

You might assume your design manager knows best when she told you “Never fly United Airlines, they have a terrible safety record.” You may be biased to trust her implicitly, but she isn’t a known expert in aviation safety.

I would definitely trust my eye doctor to get my glasses prescription correct, but just because he is an expert in optometry doesn’t mean he knows which cellular carrier has the best service worldwide.

We have to be mindful to take this kind of guidance with a grain of salt.

In Practice

At Flexport, our users are the true logistics specialists, not product designers. Our users either provide transportation services, are a supply chain manager, or work in our office coordinating our clients’ logistics.

Yet, in the field, we are elevated as the authority in freight because we are the ones designing and building the software. Participants may avoid correcting our statements out of respect, or defer to our judgement on operating procedures.

Mitigating

Here are three simple ways to mitigate this bias during your research sessions.

Build Trust

Get one-on-one time with frontline employees, as they will often be more open if their manager isn’t standing over their shoulder. Build trust by taking participants out for a drink after your first meeting and listening to their input about the industry as a whole.

Pro Tip: try throwing your business development team into a one-on-one meeting with your participant’s manager.

As you slowly build this relationship, which will still rely on your product followthrough, users will get more comfortable calling out any bugs, inefficiencies, and offer additional insights without being asked. You’ll also learn to trust their compliments to be more than just lip service.

Remind them we are not experts

As designers, we consistently remind our users that we are not experts in global logistics. I’m the first one to turn questions around on our partners or operations agents, asking them what they want or need. Using a bit of self deprecating humor always helps.

Be direct, try: “I have never worked in this industry before; we are relying on you to bring your years of experience to help us build the best product. Also, please don’t hesitate to interrupt and correct me if I say anything wrong.”

Be sure to take a moment thank them each time they stop and correct you.

Dress the Part

Showing up to a participant’s office dressed up with startup branded hoodies and backpacks is a great way to stand out and a terrible way to get straightforward data. Start by dressing down (or up) so you fit in.

During any scheduling calls, ask your contact what they wear to work. Or, look at photos online, job postings, and pictures from corporate social media accounts. Don’t show up with fancy iPads, giant headphones, and shiny laptops blazing. Remain inconspicuous, and spend time learning — not flaunting your technology background.

Impact

By mitigating the authority bias, you and your design team will build trust with your participants and users. They will be more willing to point out flaws in your designs, and will be more forthcoming with their industry know-how. (Often answering questions you didn’t even know you had.)


Quintin Carlson is a Product Designer and User Researcher at Flexport — the first internet powered freight forwarder and supply chain logistics provider. Want to tackle design problems that impact the world economy? Join our team.