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Cognitive biases in user research

“Too many theorists have a tendency to ignore facts that contradict their convictions.” — Maurice Allais 1911–2010

Camera degli Sposi — Andrea Mantegna

Bias is everywhere in society, it is inscribed in our very own behaviors. Our biases are unconscious and we enact them without intent to harm others or affect our relationships, yet they do, and in fact they frame and constrain all interactions in society. They are the reason women are paid less than men for the same work, the reason why journalists present the information their audience wants to hear and how guesses are presented as facts in headlines.

Indeed, the accumulation of information and rapid pace of society increases the impact of these biases since we need to use more shortcuts to process this data and take decisions faster than before.

We see this everywhere in society; in homes, in universities, the court system, in workplaces. It impacts many aspects of our lives and it is natural that it extends to our interactions with clients and users during user testing.

Wikipedia has arrived at this definition of cognitive biases:

A cognitive bias refers to the systematic pattern of deviation from norm or rationality in judgment, whereby inferences about other people and situations may be drawn in an illogical fashion. Individuals create their own “subjective social reality” from their perception of the input.

Conducting interviews is not as easy as it might seem, in fact it requires much expertise in order to derive the benefits. If you wish to discover the true pain points your users face, you must realize that user interviews are a delicate exercise.

The two interview protagonists (Designer and User) have their own cognitive biases that influence the results, can bring about false conclusions and lead us down false paths.

Designers that conduct user interviews need to be rigorous and disciplined in the way they ask questions in order to avoid traps or false conclusions. The root problems users face are often hidden to them and difficult to verbalize, so taking their words at face-value can be dangerous and misleading.

This discipline enables designers to:

  • Build effective solutions for their user’s problems
  • help users achieve their goals with ease

About the design process, Biases may appear at three different levels:

  • Preparation phase (assumptions + scenarios writing)
  • During tests
  • After tests during synthesis

In general when we are making predictions, it’s good to remind ourselves that we should be cautious because our predictions are unlikely to be correct, because our information is likely incomplete.

It would be ideal to spot our own deviations when they happen but it is way harder than detecting other’s biases. So working as a team can be useful if your peers will provide feedback and help check our biases.

If our teammates are biased, we can take time to explain what is happening, state their as a hypothesis and show how they later appear to be false. That way we can focus on them during research if they are major assumptions. This needn’t be a negative thing — disproving a hypothesis is just as valid and useful as proving one in scientific work.

If our users are biased, we can keep it in mind during the conversation and try to verify it as ‘that’ bias and understand consequences in order to design for it later.

It is beneficial to take biases into account as soon as they appear in order to strengthen the design process.

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