Cognitive Biases: Stay out of design and research

This is adapted from a presentation I went to at the 2019 Big Design Conference in Dallas. It was presented by Jen Blatz.

Our minds are constantly jumping to conclusions about our world and the things we interact with, some of the time these conclusions are wrong. This is called cognitive bias.

  1. Blind Spot Bias. This bias almost everyone has, and it is important to start with this one first. This bias is the idea that you don’t have any biases. It’s where you tend to point out others biases first. This is a common theme in humans and the way we work. We always look at others and what they are doing wrong before looking at ourselves. The biggest problem that can come out of this is ego. It’s important to remember that as you do design and research. In researching a big idea to combat this would be to share your interview questions with others. Let them give you insight into what you are potentially missing or could be doing better. Don’t let your ego get in the way.
  2. Experimenter Bias. Conducting research is an experiment. With this bias though, people tend to discuss the findings that align with what they want to focus on. A good way to prevent this is to have people who didn’t build the project to conduct the interviews. By giving them a list of questions that have gone through multiple people you can gather all the areas to focus on while creating questions that eliminate the blind spot bias. Something else to be aware of with this bias is something called observer -expectancy effect. This is when the “experimenter” or researcher reacts to what the participant says/does. By reacting in any way you can actually influence the findings. The best way to fix this is to videotape yourself and see if you react to anything, after that just keep practicing on eliminating those reactions.
  3. Social Comparison Bias. This bias is based around the idea that we are constantly comparing ourselves. With this idea is the tendency to favor people who don’t compete with our traits, eliminating the need to compare ourselves. By having a team with diverse backgrounds, we can actually move past the stage of competing against one another and work towards working with one another. So if you can, hire a team with diverse backgrounds, think of different cultures, ages, locations even. The more diverse the better.
  4. Not invented here bias. This bias is the tendency to reject info that comes from outside of the group. This happens because of many things including insecurity, fear, jealousy. This can really impact your comparative/competitive analysis. By rejecting the ideas of others it can actually lead to us harming our own solutions to the same problems. There is also an effect associated with this bias and it is called the semmelweis effect. This is the tendency to reject new info when it goes against already set precedents. Basically saying people are stubborn and don’t like change. But this is important to keep in mind as you move forward or look back. Question why things were done and don’t settle for the “it’s the way we have always done things” answer.
  5. Courtesy bias. Are you ever in a meeting or chatting with a group and you withhold things you want to say because you don’t want to offend anyone or stand out? This is the courtesy bias. This bias can affect a lot of aspects of design and just communication in general, but the biggest area to avoid it is when brainstorming. When brainstorming you want to get as many ideas as possible and if you have people holding back there is an opportunity to miss out on a really good idea. The best way to avoid this is to lay down ground rules. Start by having everyone write their ideas out on stickies silently, follow that by putting them on the wall silently, then discuss the ideas as a group. By allowing everyone this chance to voice their opinion silently first you don’t have to worry about people not speaking up. Just keep that in mind while discussing as a group though and be careful to not make the same mistake.

Those are the cognitive biases, but I also want to take a look at some other effects that can impact your research/design.

Baader-Meinhof Effect. This is known as the frequency illusion, you see something recently and then feel like you see it everywhere. This comes from the idea that the mind likes to make patterns, and that is something we can use in our designs/research but it is also something we need to look out for. Using this for good: When designing things like omni channels or experiences with multiple touch points, it’s important to make designs consistent across all the touch points. People like patterns so give them some to experience.

Peak-End Rule. You might have heard of this before, but it’s the idea that people’s emotional height latches onto the peak or end of the experience. This is a good thing to keep in mind, especially when researching as this can impact your data. People are going to feel really good about your product when they are almost done using it, yet that doesn’t explain their emotional range while they are using it. You need to be careful when gathering this emotional information and be aware of this. Using this for good: A good example of this would be when conducting ethnographic research. This is where you follow a user around as they do some actions. You can see their reactions in a first hand experience. You tend to experience all the nuances they experience but you also can see the peak-end rule come into play, so it’s important to not let it influence your research.

Ikea Effect. This is the idea that people feel more invested in things they build themselves, even if they aren’t perfect. A lot of this is attributed to the feeling of delight that is associated with completing things. Give your users an opportunity to build things themselves if you can, let them feel that delight about completing something.

Humor Effect. People are more likely to remember humorous things over non humorous things. Using humor in your designs or even research can be super easy, there are things like colors, illustrations, language, etc. that can all be funny. The only thing to keep in mind here is to make sure it is appropriate for your audience.

Bizarre Effect. This kind of goes with the humor effect in that people remember weird stuff over normal things. Peripheral vision can even be played into this category. Not much has been done in this area as far as I know, so use this as an idea to create something cool. Just remember to play to your audience.

Default Effect. People tend to use the default settings,or packages, or products even. This should help remind you to set good defaults. Set things up nicely for your users. Keep marketing and sales stuff out of your feature list. Package things accordingly. Don’t give into the dark patterns!


Biases can affect everyone. In order to start seeing through them we need to start being open to different and “outside” ideas. We need to fit into a group but keep it as diverse as possible. We need to allow everyone a chance to speak. We need to double check and triple check our work and allow others to look over it as well. We need to be receptive to other peoples ideas and opinions. Just use cognitive biases for good!

If you have any more biases or effects that aren’t mentioned please send them my way. I am also always around for discussion so feel free to message me, connect with me on LinkedIn or any other form of communication you prefer.

Written by

UX/UI Designer in Austin, TX.

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