Like many of us, you know you are a better-than-average driver. Perhaps, like most people, you believe you are more intelligent than most of your colleagues. Probably, you also know you are less biased and more fair-minded than others around you.

Yep? You’re not alone in your delusion. These are just three common examples of the hundreds of biases, memory effects and fallacies that determine our perceptions, reactions, behaviour, subjectivity and decision-making in many complex ways, sometimes irrationally. They affect us all, and, for the most part, we are unaware of them.

For anyone involved in the UX and creative process, where we seek to direct or influence behaviour, provoke a particular reaction or impart a particular idea in our audiences, they are obviously of interest. If we can harness their effect on our audience by understanding and accommodating them, we can – in theory – make our work more effective.

And – of equal importance – if we are aware of how they determine our own decision-making in the creative process, we can make sure the work we produce is the best quality it can be, and prevent sub-prime decision making.

Sub-prime decision-making can derail a creative process before the work gets anywhere near the intended audience.

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In this post we look at some of the common biases and memory effects and how we use them in the context of UX and digital design. This is a huge field of study, and much literature is scholarly, requiring a fair bit of commitment to get into – not good for the time-poor. So, in plainer English and admittedly with a lot of simplification, we’ve featured a few of our ‘favourites’ that we find useful, and hope you will too.

WHY WE ARE BIASED?

The term bias comes loaded with negative connotations, synonymous with prejudice or self-interest. An accusation that you’re ‘being biased’ suggests a selfish or subjective position that maybe you should redress. But biases are more nuanced than that and the way they work on us is deeper and wider than you might think. Google ‘cognitive biases and heuristics’ and you’ll find hundreds affecting our decision-making, beliefs, social perceptions and our memory itself.

We’ve developed all these biases for good reason. Each day we make many decisions and judgments. If we needed to perform a detailed analysis of all available information for each of the decisions we make, we’d paralyze our ability to get anything done. The data would overwhelm us.

So we opt for shortcuts. Biases are these shortcuts, an evolutionary solution to help us make quick and efficient decisions. They help us satisfice – find ‘just good enough’ outcomes (satisfice is a portmanteau of satisfaction and suffice), avoiding the need for a full evaluation. Whether these decisions are right or wrong, optimal or sub-optimal, is always open to debate, but at least they’ve been made, right?

(As an interesting side note, the ‘shortcut’ purpose of biases has parallels with the origins of brands – which first arose as a shortcut to communicate product quality to buyers, helping them make quicker, more confident decisions on what to buy).

PEDANTS AND DARKSIDERS BEWARE

Note that the academic line between bias, heuristic and memory effect can be blurry, so – pendants beware – not all the below may strictly be biases or heuristics. What they do have in common is they all affect decision making, which is what we are interested in.

And a quick note about ethics: harnessing biases is not about tricking people. We are against the use of Dark Patterns (design approaches that use deception or manipulation techniques to improve conversions etc). Our interest is about understanding biases so we can make the creative idea or product/service design more effective. It’s all about better user experience. There is no insidious agenda, though I admit the dark side might attract some people.

THE ‘FAVOURITES’

So here’s a shortlist of our ‘favourite’ biases. You may recognize some. Many can be applied to the creative process itself, as much as our end user audience. After all, if the former is flawed, the effect on the latter has little chance of success.

AVAILABILITY BIAS

The more front-of-mind something is, the more likely you are to use it or accept it without exploring alternatives.

It explains dominance of Google, Amazon as our go-to online options – for instance we rarely repeat the same search Google, then Bing, then Yahoo. It’s also why we fear terrorist attacks more than waking up: because the former is more shocking, gets the news exposure and is thus more ‘available’ in our heads, whereas statistically you’re 26 times far more likely to die getting out of bed. You don’t fear getting up, except perhaps on Mondays.

Availability bias is behind the traditional blunt instrument approach of mass advertising – the more we expose and ram home our message, the more likely people will buy.

How to use:
In the work we do, we find we’re often looking to disrupt the prevailing Availability Bias, perhaps working with a start up or a challenger. Get the basics right first: create a favourable first impression, compare well on your anchors (see below), and use social proof.

However, the main thing is to create the ongoing presence that the Availability Bias requires – ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is what we’re fighting against here. With most of us operating on lean budgets, nurturing is an effective way of achieving this, helping maintain visibility and exposure. It’s possible for us all to do with a little effort and organisation. So sort out a content program, get your database in ship shape and give your audience a reason to entrust you with their email addresses so you can start an ongoing dialogue. Then keep it up. (It’s amazing how badly most organisations do this).

ANCHORS & FRAMING

It’s hard to make a decision without being able to compare options. Anchors are the key pieces of information we use for these comparisons. These are often formed early on in our exposure to a subject matter and the less expert we are, the more arbitrary our anchors may be.

Anchors may be pricing, or specification, or feature based. They are why comparison and pricing tables are so useful when purchasing. The lack of anchors can make buying choices bewildering – or may mean we just buy on price or reviews.

For instance, I know little about Irons, so when I needed to buy one recently I considered price and discount, a perhaps little bit of brand name. Conversely, I know a hell of a lot about mountain bikes, and have anchors on pretty much every component, enabling a detailed evaluation where price is just one of many anchors.

Framing is a way of presenting these anchors, or other information, to help users make a decision. Many framing techniques consider our attitudes to risk and loss and can be skillfully applied to maximize conversion. This is a fascinating design area and warrants a blog post in its own right – so I’m not going to cover specifics here, but I’d encourage you to review.

How to use:
Understand what your users’ primary anchors are. Look to frame these to favour your strengths or to re-calibrate the way users’ think about these. If there’s a need is to challenge an accepted or prevailing views or anchors, then myth-busting, surprise, provocation can jolt users into re-evaluation. If it’s a category where users don’t have anchors, help educate them so they have a new frame of reference to compare against, rather than by price / review alone.

CONFIRMATION BIAS

This is the tendency when testing, researching or reviewing information, to interpret results in a way that backs up our existing preconceptions. You see what you want to see, and ignore what’s inconvenient.

Beloved of politicians, the Confirmation Bias is a potential trap for everyone, and overcoming it may mean admitting our stated public position might be mistaken. It’s a common cause of poor decision-making.

How to use:
As the Confirmation Bias is about analysis, interpretation and strategy, it’s more disruptive on the creative process than the final creative. For strategic direction, an independent thinker can bring a clarity and perspective that often is hard to find in-house. An anointed ‘devil’s advocate’, whose role is to question all decisions and probe the motivations behind them, may also be helpful if done in the right way. Or an open discussion that asks ‘are we seeing what we want to see, and ignoring the painful truth’ should help, even if it ruffles a few feathers. In this latter case, beware of Groupthink (see below).

As a creative lens, the Confirmation Bias can play on prevailing pre-conceptions if they are convenient for us, or frame a disruptive approach if not.

DIAGNOSIS BIAS

We tend to label people based on our initial opinion of them. These labels tend to stick no matter how much contrary evidence is presented later on. The same is true for how we label products, businesses and services. Look at your website: does it really create the optimal impression? As the saying goes, ‘you never get a second chance to make a first impression’.

How to use:
Make sure your site, message, communications strikes the right chord from the word go. Differentiation and image matters. User testing that assesses first impressions, especially in comparison to competitors, gives you great direction.

VALUE ATTRIBUTION

Related to the above. We form opinions based on perceptions rather than objective data. For instance, we perceive a £50 bottle of wine tastes better than a £10 bottle, just because we are aware of the price. Yet in a blind tasting, the evaluation tends to be far more equal. Try it for yourself with friends if you’re feeling flush.

How to use:
If you look shinier, you are perceived as shinier. If you want to escape evaluation on price alone (and who doesn’t?) then presentation and design, along with evidence of knowledge and expertise, can radically change your customers’ perception of the value your business, products or services – even if they themselves remain the same.

PICTURE SUPERIORITY EFFECT

As in ‘a picture tells a thousand words’, which we are all familiar with. ‘Picture Superiority’ is the academic term for this. Now, getting those images, not always so easy…

Imagery and graphics should convey a feeling or explain an idea or concept, not to fill a space. Unfortunately, image strategy and budget are often left until late in the process. This then means trawling the libraries for stock images. Being 100% reliant on these isn’t a good place to be if you want distinctive images and graphics.

I’m not knocking iStock and the like, they are a great solution and much needed. But photo libraries are like shopping at Ikea – it’s a great option, just make sure you don’t ONLY shop at Ikea, as it will be obvious to your visitors.

PRIMACY / RECENCY

You are most likely to recall items in a list if they are at the beginning or at the end.

There is an oft-cited ‘rule’ that people can’t take in or recall more than 7 items at a time. Recent research revises this down to 3-4 items (e.g. if there’s 7 items, the recency/primacy effect means users only recall the first and last 1-2 items). Here’s a great demonstration:

Can you remember this:

LOLFBIFYIRSVPWTF

Now, how about the same string of characters chunked up:

LOL  FBI  FYI  RSVP  WTF

Easier?

How to use:
Put your most important items at the start or end of a list.

Chunking your lists and nav into groups of 3-4 items will help users process and remember them.

GROUPTHINK & THE RISKY SHIFT

This is a great name for a band. These terms also explain what happens when decisions are made collectively. Maybe it’s not really a bias, but it has a major affect on decision making so worth including.

Groupthink is a phenomenon where a group has more confidence in their collective decision. A decision-making safety in numbers. And these group decisions tend to be more extreme than individual decisions – in two ways.

The first way is the Risky Shift, a term I learned from the airline industry. Safety researchers noticed that the more people involved in making a decision, the riskier that decision tends to be. For example, in deciding whether to attempt a landing in poor weather conditions, a group decision would more likely ‘go for it’ than an individual decision, sometimes with tragic consequences. Pilots and co-pilots now receive training to recognise the Risky Shift.

Conversely, Groupthink also conspires to take decisions in the opposite direction: away from danger or risk. I’m not aware of a name for this shift, so I’ll call this the Banality Shift). The Banality Shift results in decisions that are safer, blander, less creative and with less independent thinking, and is unfortunately prevalent in corporate situations. This is a good thing when managing the company pension pot, but less so when looking to produce differentiating creative work. When we worked with Google, one refreshing aspect was the willingness for individuals to make decisions without needing to pull in a wide group to rubber stamp everything. This ‘better to ask for forgiveness later than for permission first’ attitude was part of the corporate culture and evidently isn’t doing them any harm.

How to use:
It’s facile just to say ‘be more daring’ when making creative decisions, whereas the reality of decision making in any organisation can be complex. We’re empathetic that the involvement of many personalities, especially when they’re not all close to the project on a day-to-day basis, can lead to pressures where sub-prime decisions are sometimes made despite best intentions.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution here, as every case is different. We think this is all about the briefing and being clear about the specific goals of the creative early on. What impact does it need to make, what sort of scale of similar / different does it need to be? This may take some time to get right, might take a few iterations, and needs buy-in by the ultimate decision makers. Lazy briefs such as ‘original design’ (there’s no such thing), ‘clean and crisp design’ and ‘make it like the Apple site’ just aren’t good enough.

STATUS QUO BIAS

The easiest course of action is to do nothing. We’re lazy creatures by default, conserving our energy where possible. Procrastination is part of the human condition. The lower the motivation or more difficult the task appears, the less likely we are to do it. If unsure, or unmotivated, we tend to do nothing or leave defaults on.

How to use:
For low motivation tasks, use techniques such as urgency, scarcity and incentives to prompt action. For service design and software configuration, set up defaults for users that anticipate their likely requirements, giving them a helping hand.

HIPPO BIAS

We’ll leave you with one final bias – which we’ve all encountered at one time or another. OK this is a bit flippant, but I can’t resist.

The HIPPO bias is the tendency to believe (or rather, have no choice to believe) that the HIghest Paid Person’s Opinion is the most correct. After all, the most money earned and the highest rank equals the best opinion. The Top Trump of decision-making?