Cognitive Bias & UX Design: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The term cognitive bias can evoke feelings of something malicious to be avoided at all costs. However, the reality is that without biases we as human beings could not navigate our everyday lives. Not only that, but the simple awareness of these biases can lead to better, more useful user experiences. Keep reading to learn what cognitive biases are and how they relate specifically to UX designers.

User with cognitive bias looking at computer

What are Cognitive Biases?

Cognitive biases are a series of shortcuts that our brains take to make sense of the world. These shortcuts are often helpful, but can sometimes lead to faulty decision making. Why is that? Well, under normal circumstances our brains are presented with an astronomical number of decisions to make at any given moment in time. If we had to make each and every one of those decisions consciously, we could simply not function. To avoid overwhelming our brains, the vast majority of our cognitive activities (decisions, emotions, actions, and behaviors) are unconscious. 

It is believed that only 5% of our cognitive activity is conscious, whereas the remaining 95% is generated in a non-conscious manner. It’s in that 95% where our cognitive biases are derived. To put it simply, cognitive biases are a series of “rules of thumb” that our brains create to simplify decision making.

Three Types of Cognitive Biases that Impact UX

Countless books and blogs have been written analyzing the different aspects of cognitive bias. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on three specific cognitive biases and how UX designers can leverage them to create better designs.

Cognitive Fluency

One of the most powerful tools that cognitive biases give UX designers is what’s called cognitive fluency. Cognitive fluency refers to a person’s subjective experience of how easy or difficult it is to process and complete a mental task. In other words, if something is easy to read your brain tells you that it is easy to do. And if something is hard to read then your brain tells you that it is hard to do. 

One example of how this principle is applied to UX design can be found in IRS forms. IRS forms tend to be saturated with information with little regards to layout, hierarchy, or order. To fill this user experience gap, companies like TurboTax use every UX trick in the book to take the exact same form and present it in a way that makes it easier for our brains to process. Everything from separating things out into bite size sections, to dedicating a page per task and including illustrations and plain language content, TurboTax designs their products in a way that tells our brains that doing taxes is easy. The company understands that if someone believes that it is easy, they are more likely to do it.

Analysis Paralysis

The second bias we’ll explore is analysis paralysis—which refers to a phenomenon whereby overanalyzing or overthinking a situation can cause forward motion or decision-making to become “paralyzed”. What this means for UX designers is that giving people an overabundance of choice can have an adverse effect. This bias played out in a research scenario called “The Jam Experiment”, in which a grocery store conducted two tasting sessions. In one session shoppers were allowed to sample from 24 flavors of jams, and in the other session they were allowed to sample from only six flavors. What the researchers found is that even though the 24-sample session attracted more shoppers, the six-sample session successfully sold jam to 10 times more customers. This principle can be applied to UX by encouraging designers to be mindful of how many choices are being presented to users. Limiting the calls to action on a single page—to only the most important—will help ensure folks can properly process what is being asked of them and then take the appropriate action.

Recency Bias

Another cognitive bias that UX designers should account for is recency bias. Recency bias is the tendency to weigh recent events more heavily than earlier events. In terms of user experience, this bias tells us that people will believe something to be more important if it is at the top of the page, or the first item on a table or a list. 

One way to mitigate this bias is to make sure that the order of your design also reflects its true importance—because, whether we like it or not, that is what it is communicating to users. Another way is to make sure that recency does not take away the user’s ability to choose. One example of this is what Amazon has done with their product reviews.

The online e-commerce giant used to display their product reviews with the latest reviews showing on top. What they discovered is that people perceived the first review as the definitive, most important, and therefore, most trustworthy review. To combat this bias, the company decided to introduce the idea of “helpful” to their reviews. This function allowed people to vote if any particular review was helpful, and then displayed the review with the most votes at the top.

However, what the company found was that regardless of how “helpful” the review was one truism remained: how positive or negative the top review was directly affected people’s perception of the product despite the other reviews available. What Amazon then decided to do was place both the top positive and top critical reviews up-front, side-by-side to communicate that they were both of equal importance. This simple design tweak allows shoppers to view both reviews and make an informed decision of their own—while checking recency bias at the door. 

Biases Aren’t Always Bad

As designers we create environments for decision making. From the examples above, you can tell that cognitive biases can affect those environments in positive or negative ways. The only way to steer them towards positive is to be aware of biases and to utilize them responsibly.

However, cognitive biases affect not just how our designs are perceived by the users, they can also affect us UX designers and our design process directly. In the second part of this article we’ll discuss how this impacts the design process in a positive manner, in a negative manner, and some practical ways to push us all towards a greater good.

What other cognitive biases should UX designers be on the lookout for? Let us know on Twitter if there’s one you’d add to our list.

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