Two Steps to Better Design Decisions

While the human brain is our greatest design resource, it also erects barriers in the form of cognitive bias, or brain quirks. Sadly, such brain quirks are legion and include the optimism, overconfidence, availability, and confirmation biases.

The confirmation bias presents an especially difficult challenge because it causes us to seek evidence that supports our existing opinions making it less likely that we will conduct the research necessary to understand customers and end users. In the immortal words of blogger Andrew McVagh, “Your Brain is a Yes Man.

Equally problematic is the availability bias. As explained in When Bias Trumps Design Part 1, this brain quirk makes it hard to consider facts and data that do not come to mind easily. In short, our brains are lazy and tend to latch on to information that is easily and quickly accessible.

Our brains are lazy.

The result is the tendency to conclude that we already know everything we need to know about end users, the people who use our web sites, web apps, and mobile apps. Exacerbating this erroneous conclusion is the brain’s tendency to substitute an easy question for a harder and likely more important question. For example, rather than ask the most important question about how to simplify the registration process for a healthcare mobile app, we might end up asking an easier, but less relevant, question about how to reduce the number of clicks.

The good news? Employing the two techniques outlined below will go a long way toward mitigating the confirmation and availability biases that so often hinder a user-friendly design.

Devil’s Advocacy

This approach extends beyond the informal “allow-me-to-play-devil’s-advocate” comment frequently heard during team meetings. Rather, the idea is to develop a simple structure that allows team members to genuinely add value by improving the original idea rather than simply tearing it down. Scholar and decision expert Michael Roberto outlines this process:

  1. The team leader divides the design team into two groups.
  2. Group 1 creates a design or even a high-level design concept and presents the design to Group 2.
  3. Group 2 develops a case against the proposed concept.
  4. Based on this feedback, Group 1 literally returns to the drawing board to modify the design.
  5. The two groups then engage in a series of discussions until reaching agreement about the design concept.
  6. After reaching agreement, the sub-groups work on a design that each side can accept.

The Switch

Another effective technique involves shifting perspectives:

  1. The team leader divides the design team into three or four groups (groups of three or four work well).
  2. Each group then presents a solution.
  3. The team leader then asks each group to evaluate and defend one of the other group’s solutions that they do not support.

The switch and devil’s advocacy approaches offer three specific advantages when creating new designs:

  1. These two techniques reduce the chances of falling into the confirmation bias/yes-man trap by essentially forcing all team members to challenge their assumptions.
  2. Both approaches sharpen people’s understanding of the opposing views by allowing them to gain an understanding of the others’ arguments. A decision can then be made with little rancor.
  3. Achieving a genuine understanding of an opposing point of view reduces the chances that team members will focus exclusively on information that they can easily recall, making it easier to broaden their perspective. In other words, the switch and devil’s advocate techniques reduce the chances that availability bias will sneak its way into design decisions.

Don’t let your brain become a lazy yes-man. Use the switch and devil’s advocate techniques to harness the talent on your team and make sound design decisions that will serve your customers.


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