Barriers to Better Design Decisions
While the human brain is our greatest design resource, it also erects barriers to better design decisions. These impediments take the form of brain quirks. As discussed in a previous post about design decisions, these brain quirks are legion and include the optimism, overconfidence, 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, technically the availability heuristic. This brain quirk makes it hard to consider facts and data that do not come to mind easily as behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman explains at length in Thinking Fast and Slow. In short, our brains are lazy and tend to latch on to information that is easily and quickly accessible.
The result is the tendency to conclude that we already know everything we need to know about the people who use our sites and 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 three techniques outlined below will go a long way toward mitigating the confirmation and availability biases and lead to better design decisions.
Step 1 to Better Design Decisions: 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:
- The team leader divides the design team into two groups.
- Group 1 creates a design or even a high-level design concept and presents the design to Group 2.
- Group 2 develops a case against the proposed concept.
- Based on this feedback, Group 1 literally returns to the drawing board to modify the design.
- The two groups then engage in a series of discussions until reaching agreement about the design concept.
- After reaching consensus, the groups work on a design that each side can accept.
Step 2 to Better Design Decisions: The Switch
Another effective technique involves shifting perspectives:
- The team leader divides the design team into groups (groups of three or four work well).
- Each group then presents a solution.
- The team leader then asks each group to evaluate and defend one of the other group’s solutions that they do not support.
The idea is to avoid focusing on solutions that feel easy, comfortable, and come to mind easily. By defending a concept that they do no support, team members must think carefully and critically about the ultimate design goals and how best to meet users’ needs.
Step 3 to Better Design Decisions: Focus on Failure
Experts who study organizational effectiveness often refer to organizations with exceptionally low error and failure rates as high reliability organizations (HROs). Examples include aircraft carriers and air traffic control centers in the U.S.
These HROs do not ignore the possibility of failure. On the contrary, their leaders, managers, and employees use specific techniques to identify and prevent failure. The table below outlines these techniques and how to use them to in order to make better design decisions.
Why These 3 Steps Work
The switch, devil’s advocacy, and focus-on-failure approaches offer three specific advantages when creating new designs:
- These three techniques reduce the chances of falling into the confirmation bias/yes-man trap by essentially forcing all team members to challenge their assumptions.
- These approaches sharpen people’s understanding of opposing views and unexpected results by allowing them to gain an understanding of different perspectives.
- 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. A focus on failure draws attention important information that might otherwise remain hidden.
In short, these 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, devil’s advocate, and focus-on-failure techniques to harness the talent on your team and make better design decisions that will serve your customers and help your bottom line.