Ethical product design: should we make the unconscious conscious?

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” — Carl Jung

A lot has been written and discussed about unconscious bias in decision making. There is a growing awareness of the biases and mental shortcuts that exist in all of us to enable rapid decision making. These shortcuts reduce the overload of information we process daily into manageable chunks.

We couldn’t live our lives without our unconscious biases. While they are useful in many aspects of life — such as fast reactions to danger — they are problematic when making hiring decisions. The tendency to see patterns and rely on previous knowledge and stereotypes can result in unconscious bias — mental shortcuts where we make quick judgements and assessments about certain groups of people outside of our own conscious awareness. These biases are shaped by our experiences and by cultural norms, and allow us to filter information and make quick decisions.

How unconscious bias hurts recruitment

As Australia’s leading employment marketplace, SEEK helps both candidates to find jobs, and hirers to recruit candidates. Hirers find candidates on SEEK via two main sourcing channels; by applications to their job ads, or by proactively connecting with candidates on SEEK’s Talent Search platform.

When assessing these candidates, many hirers are time poor and juggling multiple other tasks in addition to recruitment. Modes of thinking and cognitive biases can accelerate but cloud their decision making processes. Instead of slowly and deliberately assessing each candidate, they may spend only a few moments scanning a resume, glancing at details such as name, role title and location.

In this rapid assessment, they are using what psychologist Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in behavioural economics called ‘fast thinking.’ While this unconscious ‘fast thinking’ mode is rapid, it is also automatic, irrational and vulnerable to biases — causing errors in judgement. In his book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, he explores the psychology of judgment and decision-making, exposing the faults and biases of fast thinking, and reveals the pervasive influence of intuitive impressions on our thoughts and behaviour. By contrast, he argues that slow thinking is more conscious — rational, logical and deliberate, and generally leads to better decision making.

As they use their ‘fast thinking’ mode to assess the list of candidates to determine their suitability for the role, hirers can be vulnerable to similarity bias — the human tendency to perceive people similar to themselves more positively than those who are different. Similarity bias can greatly influence the ability to evaluate candidates effectively. Rather than focusing on the candidate’s merit and capability to do the job, hirers may make unconscious evaluations based on factors such as their gender, ethnicity, age, socio-economic background, educational pedigree etc. They may hire the person they like the best, not necessarily the best person for the job. Left unchecked, similarity bias can lead to the creation of homogenous teams, and perpetuate existing power imbalances, rather than fostering diversity in our companies and teams — which is a proven competitive advantage, improving team engagement and performance.

So unconscious bias happens in hiring, but what can we do about it?

Many international and Australian jobseeker studies have shown the impact that a person’s name can make to their success when applying for jobs, as employers can infer both gender and ethnicity from their name — thus opening the door to potential unconscious bias. These studies have shown that despite having equivalent qualifications and experience, job seekers with female or non-anglicised names are significantly less successful than applicants with male or anglicised names.

The Australian study showed statistically significant differences in callback rates for Jobseekers based on the ethnicity of their name. To get the same number of interviews as an applicant with an Anglo-Saxon name, a Chinese applicant must submit 68% more applications, a Middle Eastern applicant must submit 64% more, an Indigenous applicant must submit 35% more, and an Italian applicant must submit 12% more.

The simple act of anonymising candidate profiles on SEEK could help reduce this bias, empower hirers to evaluate applicants based on merit rather than fall victim to their unconscious bias implicit in a name, and lead to more opportunities for all jobseekers to have a fair go — regardless of their gender or ethnicity. This technique is called blind hiring as it “blinds” demographic-related information about a candidate from the hirer that can lead to bias.

As experience designers of technology platforms that connect people, we are now faced with a philosophical question and an ethical challenge. Should we optimise the user experience flow, enable ‘fast thinking’ for our hirers, merely make their intended behaviour easier, more efficient and streamlined, without any judgement or interference? Or should we design our platforms for ‘slow thinking’ to encourage more conscious, better decision making by introducing friction to human behaviour which may be harmful or biased in some way? And as Australia’s leading employment marketplace, is it our responsibility to drive equality, fairness, and societal change by combatting these biases, or to non-judgmentally help our users optimise their task— even if that task may be an unconsciously discriminatory hiring process?

So, what did we ship?

What originated as a hackathon project to ‘shield’ hirers from bias developed into the new ‘Hide Names’ feature in SEEK’s Talent Search platform. This is a simple checkbox that hirers can select to hide candidate names in the search results, helping them focus on merit-based assessment, without unconscious bias clouding their decisions.We decided to focus on the initial reviewing and shortlisting stage of the recruitment process, which is where the majority of unconscious bias occurs — when hirers scan lists of candidates, rapidly evaluating their ability to do the job. We aimed to foster awareness of bias at this stage of the screening process, to educate and empower hirers to overcome their biases via this small but powerful feature.

Guard against unconscious bias with SEEK’s ‘hide names’ feature

We made 3 important design decisions on the implementation of the feature:

  1. We placed the checkbox in a prominent position in the centre of the user flow to achieve optimum visibility.
  2. We implemented the feature as optional, with user control to switch it on or off (hide or reveal names), in order to balance encouragement of thoughtful behaviour and deliberate decision making with the need for user control.
  3. We provided user on-boarding and education on the purpose and benefits of using the feature via in-product info, sales training for our customer-facing teams, and further supporting marketing material.

By de-identifying the candidates, we aimed to encourage hirers to embrace slow thinking — to articulate upfront exactly what’s important to do the job well, and focus their evaluation on these merits, rather than unconsciously assessing the candidates on their gender or ethnicity. We released this feature last week, and 53% of hirers have so far engaged with the ‘Hide Names’ checkbox to try it out. This is an encouraging first step in creating curiosity and growing awareness around unconscious bias in hiring. The feature and supporting material have also sparked conversations and training sessions between SEEK’s sales team and agency recruiters around how they can elevate their sourcing strategies with this tool, and explain diversity benefits to their clients in turn.

No silver bullet to bias

It’s important to note that both overcoming unconscious bias and improving diversity take a lot of effort, time, and commitment. There is no silver bullet to this multi-faceted and nuanced societal issue. But as SEEK’s product, design and delivery teams, we can consciously make ethical and inclusive product design decisions to balance the interests of both candidates and hirers in SEEK’s employment marketplace. This technology will have increasing influence over our users’ perception, behaviour, and interactions in society.

For more information on Talent Search, and tips on diversity, unconscious bias and optimising your hiring processes, check out the SEEK Insights and resources blog, or contact to enquire about SEEK’s unconscious bias training to improve Diversity and Inclusion in your workplace.

Thanks to Evelyn Balfe, Abby Crook, Tim Crook, Michael Isgro and Maz penguino.