When Bias Trumps Design

What do you see below? Anything missing?

no brown m&ms

Photo by gmanviz License

There are no brown M&Ms® in the jar. Don’t worry if you missed it; most people do. Unless you’re an M&Ms® fanatic, you probably don’t care about the color of this American candy icon.

Indeed, the colors themselves don’t matter. What’s important is that most of us don’t notice that brown M&Ms®, one of the five original colors, do not appear in this photo. Okay, but why does this happen and why should we care?

The reason we overlook the missing brown M&Ms® is, well, because they’re missing. It’s the old out-of-sight-out-of-mind phenomenon.

Unfortunately, this tendency is not limited to our literal line of sight. We often fail to consider information that is not easily accessible. For example, if I were to ask whether more people in the U.S. die from shark attacks or falling airplane parts, many would answer “shark attacks” even though the correct answer is falling airplane parts.

shark attacks and cognitive bias

The road to design hell is paved with good intentions.

As explained in the Wolf quote above, we often answer these types of questions incorrectly because we place too much emphasis on vivid and easily recalled information, in this example, shark attacks. The technical term for this phenomenon is the availability heuristic or the tendency to make decisions based on information we can easily recall even if this information is irrelevant.  In short, the availability heuristic (also known as the availability bias) causes us to jump to conclusions.

The resulting design can prove problematic as happened on a design project in the financial sector. The target audience for the Web application was the company’s sales force. When I asked permission to observe and interview sales reps, the product owner replied “We don’t have budget for that. Besides, I understand our financial products.”

It should come as no surprise that the emerging design was based largely on the product owner’s opinions. For example, key data often appeared not only in red but also in subtly different shades of red. When I explained that red is a risky choice for male users (approximately 9% of U.S. males are color blind with red-green types among the most common), the female product owner assured me that it was not a problem. They had used red before, and, besides, she could see it. Well, of course she could. Only .5% of women in the U.S. are color blind.

The point is not to lambast the client. Her comments were sincere and her intentions good. She could easily read the data in red and even distinguish between subtle shades of red. Her aim was to keep the project moving by pushing through a design she believed would help the sales force.

Unfortunately, the road to design hell is often paved with good intentions. Perhaps more to the point, the path to a painful user experience is often paved with good intentions. Remember, the availability bias is unconscious. As biologist John Median explains, “What we see is only what our brain tells us to see.” In the case of the financial Web application, the client literally saw red, and that was just fine….for her.

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