Important Cognitive Biases in UX Design You Should Know
In UX design, biases can be a double-edged sword. They can serve as tools for designers to make better experiences for users, and at the same time they can be the downfall of a product — when the designers do not put their own biases in check, resulting in flawed decision-making processes.
Hence, it is necessary to understand what these biases are and how to leverage or curtail them. Armed with a knowledge of the psychological tendencies, stereotypes and sentiments of an audience, you can better match their expectations.
In this article, you will learn the fundamental cognitive biases in user experience design, how designers utilise some of them, and how to spot and dilute others. Let's begin!
What are cognitive biases?
The human brain is a very complex organ faced with fairly complex tasks that require the allocation of mental resources. To achieve a more fluid decision-making process, the brain uses shortcuts created from memory or prior experience.
For instance, if the outcome of an event has always turned out to be X for each repetition. When faced with deciding what the outcome of that event should be in the future, the brain is inclined to assume X.
These are what we popularly refer to as stereotypes or prejudices.
And as you might already suspect, while these stereotypes — mental constructs, can aid us to make more spontaneous and effective decisions, they can also be a terrible source of flawed judgment.
What if the outcome of our event isn't X?
It's important to note that we are incapable of totally ridding our minds of these biases. But through critical thinking techniques, we can identify them and make efforts to reduce their negative impacts.
What are UX biases?
Biases can come into play at different stages of the UX design process, notable is user research where the designers empathise with users to derive insights. This can be subject to sentiments as there is hardly any concrete objectivity in some of the tasks.
Obtaining data is just one aspect, another source of UX biases can be found in the interpretation of the data. Designers need to be careful to not inject their opinions into the data and make it misleading.
The design process is yet another important aspect of UX design to consider, here, it is easy to leverage some biases. The UX designer can utilise known UI design principles based on the psychological leanings of users to make interfaces that better cater to their needs.
Now that we have an overview of biases and how they impact the UX design process, let's take a look at some popular UX cognitive biases.
The top cognitive biases in UX
It's nearly impossible to list all possible cognitive biases the average human mind can be subjected to, however, there are notable ones that affect the UX design profession. We can broadly view these psychological inclinations as positive or negative to the design process.
1. Confirmation bias
One of the most popular kinds of UX biases. Confirmation bias involves selectively searching for and interpreting results and findings to fit your existing beliefs while subconsciously overlooking information that contradicts them.
This can be a big problem for user experience designers. It is quite difficult to do away entirely with your "hunch". Even if there is a ton of data suggesting you are wrong, you are likely to focus on the few that make you appear right.
Confirmation bias can flaw the way the user experience designers conduct research, predetermined values and beliefs make you fixated on ideas that aren't credible. It also leads to framing research questions in ways that introduce your sentiments into the process.
Without an open mind, creativity and innovation are heavily impacted as well. This is why the ideation phase, where designers have to employ creative thinking, is another stage where confirmation bias can have negative impacts.
To curtail this UX cognitive bias, especially during user interviews, it is recommended to:
- Ask open-ended questions.
- Actively listen to participants.
- Use large survey samples.
2. Sunk cost fallacy
In economics, a sunk cost refers to incurred costs that can not be recovered. Therefore, this bias in UX means a reluctance to move on from an endeavor that cost us resources.
Generally, people tend to stick with activities that they have invested resources or effort into, sometimes overlooking the fact that there are more optimal alternatives, and that the benefits of abandoning the endeavor outweigh those of sticking to it.
The sunk cost bias makes designers and stakeholders assume that the deeper they invest time and resources into a project the harder it is to change its course. This is a fallacy.
One recommended approach for dealing with the sunk cost bias is to break down your projects into checkpoints, this makes it easy to revert to previous stages.
3. Recency bias
Ever heard of saving the best for last? Chances are that you have, and that saying exists for a good reason.
Recency bias refers to the tendency to remember objects or events that appeared most recently in a series. This bias can be utilised by UX designers in creative ways to ensure users remember the information which comes last.
Due to recency bias, the brain is more likely to tend towards information that is still fresh in memory, unlike others that have a lesser impact due to time.
Sometimes, during user interviews when designers have to battle with this bias in UX —for instance, remembering only the details of the last participant— a good way to decrease this is by taking detailed notes during the interview.
4. Primacy bias
This is the opposite of the recency bias. Occasionally, the first in a series is the one that leaves the most impact on the brain. And even after exposure to others, the brain still vividly recalls the first object it encountered.
In user interviews, primacy bias can make it easiest for the user experience designer to remember the first participant more strongly than the subsequent participants.
Same as the recency bias, a good way to prevent this is by taking detailed notes of responses from all participants.
5. Anchoring bias
This is similar to the primacy bias and in part due to it, the anchoring effect refers to a phenomenon where you rely unreasonably on information that was presented first. It involves creating an anchor on which you then base your judgment or interpretation of subsequent events.
The anchoring effect is quite popular in UX design and marketing fields. For instance, contrasting high and low "bonus" prices for items, is one example of how the anchoring effect is widely used in e-commerce.
Here's the interesting part, In design, you can better guide users using the anchoring bias, by creating good first impressions — anchors, you can lead them seamlessly through favorable decision-making processes.
6. Social proof bias
Who doesn't love a little reassurance when in doubt?
Social proof is a deep psychological tendency rooted in us wanting to know that we are not alone when faced with uncertainty.
This bias relies on the social nature of humans. Agreeing with the "community" is an evolutionary need, and trusting the judgment of the majority offers more advantages than the minority.
By including things like testimonials and reviews for a product or service the chances of more people engaging with it increases much significantly. This bias in UX is a long-standing tool evident in so many businesses today because of its tested and trusted effectiveness.
7. The IKEA effect
People generally tend to place more value on things they feel they contributed to creating.
Named after Swedish furniture giants IKEA, who sell furniture that customers need to assemble themselves, this cognitive bias implies that we place more value on experiences and objects that we expended effort in creating.
In UX design, we can utilise this inclination in creating more rewarding experiences for the users. For instance, a designer can create interfaces analogous to furniture that needs to be assembled. Building a profile parts by parts can make a user feel more involved.
8. Scarcity bias
Does rare always mean good? Well, a lot of people think so.
The scarcity effect is a psychological principle whereby humans tend to value scarce things more. Scarcity— sometimes artificial— implies that demand exceeds the supply of an item, this leads us to associate a sense of higher value to the rare object.
The scarcity effect is commonly used in the marketing field. Brands use this bias to create a sense of urgency that gets the needed reactions from potential customers.
One of the best tricks e-commerce stores have on their shelves is this principle. A wristwatch that is presented as a "hot deal" and about to go out of stock will likely get a lot of interest. The thinking, of course, is that high demand equals quality.
9. False consensus bias
This cognitive bias refers to the assumption that others will think the way you do. A false consensus involves a misrepresentation of reality and facts and pertains to projecting your beliefs and motivations onto others.
People tend to see their personal opinions as normative or believe that there are way more people with the same opinions than there actually are.
The problem with the false consensus bias is that it creates situations where you neglect actual data and instead project your attributes onto people.
10. Social desirability
The need to be liked and appreciated by people is an ingrained behavioural trait in humans. Being social animals, we want to avoid confrontations, be in people's good books, and be appreciated for our efforts in the community.
That is a natural inclination.
And we find ourselves making conscious efforts to achieve those goals. This creates a cognitive bias in our minds. For instance, always trying to please others —sometimes at the cost of your own integrity or happiness— is a manifestation of this bias.
How does it play out in UX design?
During user interviews and usability studies, some users might feel obliged to deliver answers that they think the designers want to hear instead of how they actually feel.
Hence, it's important to avoid leading questions, instead, use open questions that are well framed, giving participants room to express themselves.
11. The Von Restorff effect
The final cognitive bias in our list is a popular one. The Von Restorff bias, also known as the isolation bias, suggests that people are likely to remember something different from a group of similar-looking objects, i.e, the more an object stands out from a group the more likely it is to be seen and remembered.
To draw the user's attention to a particular element of your interface, the Von Restorff can come in handy. You can employ size, color or other visual attributes to emphasize an object.
General tips for reducing the effects of cognitive bias in UX
Now that we have considered different kinds of UX biases and some simple ways to curtail them, let's take a look at general tips that can be helpful to designers.
Know your bias
A mind completely devoid of bias is impossible to find. Thinking there's a magical technique to rid you of all your mental inclinations is nothing but wishful thinking.
What's more? You need some of them.
However, the first step to curtailing biases in UX is recognizing that they exist. As a UX designer, it is important to critically observe yourself and identify your biases and how they can possibly interfere with your work.
Once you know them, it is easier to devise measures to manage them because there are many recommended approaches to eliminating errors due to bias in different stages of the UX design process.
Use large samples
Limited data samples can provide misleading signals. The quality of insights obtained from user research depends heavily on the amount and diversity of the sample considered.
To ensure that you are dealing with bias-free data, it's vital to interview a large audience.
Conducting such interviews can become expensive and time-consuming, however, with maze usability testing and other similar software platforms you can easily automate your user research process.
Have a clear strategy for analysing results
Another key area where different biases can be introduced into the user experience design process is the interpretation of the results.
- Do you have clearly defined metrics and objectives before even commencing the research?
- What are your tools for data analysis? And what strategy do you want to employ in going from raw data to meaningful insights?
These are some of the vital questions every UX designer needs to answer to create a means of analysing data that centers on objectivity.
Keep your emotions in check
As a UX researcher, your emotions can influence how you interview your participants, it can also affect how you interpret the data you collect.
For instance, feeling moody or unhappy can lead you to view answers from your participants in a relatively skewed manner.
Goes without saying that it is best to conduct interviews and analyse data with a clear head.
Watch your body language
Your body language during interviews can affect the people you interact with. People are good at reading subtle signs, and noticing unwelcoming body language —regardless of whether it is intentional or not —can make them react similarly or feel uneasy interacting with you. This can lead to them giving misleading information.
Cognitive biases can be both good and bad, depending on how they affect your activities. Knowledge of these biases can help UX designers become more objective in their conduct. Also, they can leverage some of them in making more suitable interfaces for the users.