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The Importance of Cognitive Bias in Experience Design

TimeOdd Stories - cognitive bias

Design can benefit immensely from cognitive bias.

Specifically, design can benefit from thinking of cognitive bias as keys to efficiency and accuracy, rather than as roadblocks in the way. Dark patterns prey on the way we think to meet more nefarious ends?—?but what if, instead, we used the way we naturally think to design better interactions and experiences?

Cognitive bias helps us to better understand our world and act accordingly?—?quickly. It’s important to understand exactly how this works, so that we can design for and with it rather than against or in spite of it. Cognitive bias should be a powerful tool in the designer’s belt.

Cognitive bias is generally defined as an uncontrollable, systematic error in thinking. However, when they’re taken out of theory and into practice, it’s hard to not see their value as a way of coping with information overload.

Building on Buster Benson’s phenomenal cognitive bias categorization,focusing on what cognitive biases actually achieve is a good starting point. Roughly, cognitive bias helps us:

  1. act quickly,
  2. create explanations or meaning,
  3. make sense of large amounts of information, and
  4. determine what’s important to remember or recall.

Depending on what we’re designing to accomplish, understanding cognitive biases allows us to do more than design around them?—?we can use them.

This finally brings us to the central question: how do we actually use cognitive bias in a positive way and turn the flaws in the way we think into strengths? I see two possible pathways: we can flip the bias, or control the context.

Path 1: Flip the bias

If we look at what a bias actually strengthens, we can use it to our advantage.

Take the example of risk compensation: as a situation gets safer, we become more willing to take risky actions, and vice versa. We have to rapidly assess how risky or safe an action is so that we can make a decision and act accordingly.

Shared space is an excellent example of a design that flips this particular bias and focuses on that “vice versa” element. As we start to feel like a situation that we’re in is riskier, we become less likely to take risks. Shared space applies this to the idea of reckless driving.

Eliminating a combination of things like sidewalks, traffic lights, and curbs puts drivers in an inherently riskier situation. This lowers their willingness to engage in reckless driving. Shared space is not without critics or controversy, but it has shown significant promise in increasing safety.

In another example, think about pain reporting. If I ask you to rate your pain from 1 to 7, what does that really mean? Is your idea of a 7 the same as mine? Is your idea of a 7 the same today as it was yesterday, or a month ago? But what about if I ask you to tell me if you’re in more pain now than you were earlier? Now we’re evaluating your pain in the same way you’re probably already thinking about it?—?not that it’s a 5 out of 7, but that it’s worse than it was before.

Comparing your current pain to a past value is an example of anchoring. Anchoring says that we rely disproportionately heavily on one piece of information to shape our thought process and decision-making. Anyone who’s had to go through a salary negotiation has experienced this, at least to some degree.

Anchoring can sway our judgments and our understanding of new pieces of information. Constructively, though, it can give us a central place to root our understanding of abstract concepts. We can use anchoring to design interactions that allow users to better understand and respond to abstract information.

If we can identify what a cognitive bias does, we can design interactions that take advantage of it.

Path 2: Control the context

The other pathway to using cognitive bias is to control the bounds of the context and situation itself, and ensure that the bias’ effect is well-contained.

If you love watching people on American Idol butcher songs with immense confidence, you have the Dunning-Kruger effect to thank (at least partly). The Dunning-Kruger effect says that novices are likely to overestimate their abilities. Without a solid understanding of whatever it is they’re attempting to do, novices can’t accurately judge their own abilities. An untrained ear makes it hard to identify just how far off-key your rendition of Proud Mary actually is.

Using this, we can carefully design onboarding experiences to complex new processes or tools so that a novice can maintain the confidence that the Dunning-Kruger effect brings without becoming overconfident and consequently making an enormous error. Video games are a good (if imperfect) illustration of this point, requiring time and investment to unlock more complicated capabilities.

We can remove the game elements from the equation that also govern video game unlocking mechanisms, but maintain the core idea of slowly introducing users to more complex abilities: what if we improve a novice photographer’s first experiences with a new image editing program exposes them to a small subset of tools and trains those tools before opening up the full range of capabilities?

In another example, open-ended generation?—?like for a new username or password?—?is heavily influenced by memory. There’s no shortage of cognitive bias that affects memory, and one in particular is worth noting here: the recency effect (we’re especially likely to remember things that came last in a sequence, or happened most recently).

This memory bias means that whatever we’re generating is likely to be pretty heavily influenced by recent events or prompts. It’s tough to avoid re-using some part of the password I just typed in to check my email. Telling me to not create a password based on my pet’s name or the street where I grew up will just cue me to those exact things?—?now I won’t be able to think of anything else.

If we really need to come up with something unique or random, careful design can make open-ended generation more targeted and effective. For example, creating intentional, specific requirements?—?like a password that needs to include the current hour?—?can prevent biases like the recency effect from having too much influence.

Providing intentional restraints and context for a bias lets it run freely in a constructive way.

Because they are innate, systematic, and uncontrollable, cognitive bias isn’t going away. But if we design with bias, instead of against it, we can augment and harness the positive things it accomplishes. Flip the bias to harness what it already accomplishes. Control the context to control and guide the bias.

What do you think?

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Written by TimeOdd

TimeOdd is a leading technology media property, dedicated to obsessively profiling startups, reviewing new Internet products, and breaking tech news.



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