Ten Ways Cognitive Biases Impact Data Design Work
These known biases are especially relevant in data visualization, and staying alert to them can help us avoid harmful designs
Our lives are plagued by uncertainty. We rely on design to navigate the twists and turns. When designs incorporate data, they can illuminate knowledge we may need.
Designs incorporating data are best used when the context necessitates some important decision-making and when there is data available for guidance. For example, right now, the world is awash in charts meant to explain the pandemic, in part so we can better understand the risks and make decisions accordingly.
Whether they are aware of it or not, the designer often approaches such problems with a set of heuristics. These are broad rules, general principles, or mental shortcuts that help us make some quick decisions, such as using consistent language and making typefaces legible.
Heuristics are meant to help with problem solving but they can also present a new set of problems entirely. In the 1970s and 80s psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman laid the groundwork for studies of heuristics as well as cognitive biases.
Like heuristics, cognitive biases can be incredibly practical, but they can also lead to significant errors in perception, interpretation, judgment, and behavior. Stereotypes, for example, are cognitive biases.
While they are understandable as products of human evolution, cognitive biases have social impact that should not be underestimated. Racial profiling has contributed greatly to mass incarceration, and political polarization is at least in part the result of confirmation bias.
Designers can play a pivotal role in the presentation of information as well as its interpretation and impact. When we work with data, we have the opportunity to guide readers with facts, but there’s no guarantee that biases won’t play their part as well — our…