s designers, we want to design optimal experiences for the diverse range of people a product will serve. To achieve this, we take steps in our research and design decisions to minimize the risk of alienating product-relevant social identities, including but not limited to disability, race/ethnicity, gender, skin color, age, sexual orientation, and language.
According to psychologists, we all have unconscious biases. So, designs are often biased, just like we are. This article is for anyone involved in the product design and development process — writers, researchers, designers, developers, testers, managers, and stakeholders. We’ll explore how our biases impact design outcomes and what we can do to design more inclusive experiences.
Once we recognize our unconscious biases, we can take steps to reduce their influence on our decision-making, both as individuals and as collective development and design teams. In this article, we will discuss six unconscious biases that commonly result in delivering user experiences that fall short of being inclusive.
Confirmation Bias #
This is probably one of the most well-known biases, yet we tend to underestimate how much it impacts our own behavior. Confirmation bias is the tendency to unconsciously look for and give more weight to data, feedback, and users’ behavior that affirms our existing assumptions.
WHAT IS THE IMPACT? #
When we approach our work with a confirming and validating mindset, we are more likely to skew our research plan and ignore or minimize any findings that contradict our beliefs. These flaws undermine the purpose of doing research — the goal of inclusive design — and can result in building the wrong thing or the right thing the wrong way. It can also create overconfidence in our assumptions and incline us not to conduct any research at all.
Abercrombie & Fitch dominated the teen clothing market in the 1990s and early 2000s, promoting a very exclusive, all-American, cool-kid image. In the early 2010s, when consumer preferences shifted, the company failed to listen to consumers and maintain its exclusive brand image. After three years of declining sales and pressure from investors, CEO Mike Jefferies resigned. The new CEO, Fran Horowitz, rebranded the company saying, “We are a much more inclusive company, we are closer to the customer, we’re responding to the customer wants and not what we want them to want.”
WHAT CAN WE DO? #
- Be curious.
Approach conversations with users with a curiosity mindset and ask non-leading and open-ended questions. Having someone else take notes can serve as an accountability partner as you may hear things differently and can discuss them to clear up discrepancies. And, as much as possible, document exact quotes instead of inferences.
- Be responsive.
View each design idea as a hypothesis with a willingness to change direction in response to research findings. Until we conduct primary research with users, our design concepts are merely our best guess based on our own experiences and limited knowledge about our users. We start with that hypothesis as a prototype, then test it with a diverse cross-section of our audience before coding. As quoted by Renee Reid at a UX Research Conference, we should “investigate not validate” our design concepts.
Optimism Bias #
While optimism has been linked to many health benefits, optimism bias can be detrimental. Our tendency to minimize the potential of negative outcomes and underestimate risks when it comes to our own actions is referred to as optimism bias. Teams will optimistically think that overlooking socially responsible design will not adversely affect our users’ experience or the bottom line.
WHAT IS THE IMPACT? #
As a result of optimistic bias, we may skip user research, ignore accessibility, disregard inclusive language, and launch products that don’t account for the diverse people who use the product.
It turns out that people want and expect products to be designed inclusively. A 2021 survey found that 65% of consumers worldwide purchase from brands that promote diversity and inclusion. And a study by Microsoft found that 49% of Gen-Z consumers in the US stopped purchasing from a brand that did not represent their values.
WHAT CAN WE DO? #
- Recognize the powerful influence of negativity bias for those on the receiving end of our optimistic bias.
Psychologists’ research has consistently affirmed that people expect to have good experiences and are more unhappy about bad experiences than good ones. So, one bad interaction has a much greater impact on our users’ perceptions about their experiences than multiple positive interactions.
- Prioritize impact over output.
Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman suggests running a project premortem. He has extensively researched optimism bias and ways to reduce its influence on our decision-making. Premortem is a loss aversion technique that encourages us to brainstorm potential oversights and identify preventive measures early in our processes.