User Error: Addressing Cognitive Bias in Design

My Father in Law, as far as I know, never lent a book out until I asked a few years ago. It was an unopened (as in still shrink wrapped) copy of Don Delillo’s Cosmopolis as an audio book that was on top of a ramshackle stack of books, tapes, and other junk in the garage, apparently collecting dust.  He was not pleased at my request and begrudgingly went along with it, probably to please his wonderful daughter.

So imagine my surprise when he just up and offered to loan me a book!

This past month, he offered me to take back his copy of The Martian by Andy Weir. Great Book, I’m sure the movie is great too although at time of writing I haven’t seen it.

In The Martian, astronaut Mark Watney gets stranded on Mars and has to McGyver his way to surviving long enough for a rescue attempt. What’s fascinating is that for large swaths of the novel it is literally just Mark thinking a loud.

Most of the Science-y stuff you’ll remember from high school (if you were paying attention), so one of the things that stood out to me was Mark’s thought process.  In the name of making a compelling story, I’m sure it was more roundabout and error prone than a normal astronaut’s thinking may have been, and this part of the book resonated for me in my line of work.

Although there are many complex tools out there, producing great looking sites and applications has never been easier.

But, that’s never been the problem.  It’s a good problem to solve but the real problems are not easily solved by tools.

Things like:

  • Do I understand how my business makes money?
  • Do I know who my customer is?
  • Do I understand how to shape the experience they have with our brand/company?
  • What are we going to make or say for these customers?
  • What activities do we need to do to make these plans work?

It’s not the same scale or urgency as being stranded 12 light-minutes away on Mars, but these are the same kinds of problems and designers like us should focus on helping clients answer these questions and be able to follow through with the design we spend so much time crafting.

For instance, how many times have you gone back to a client site to find a page you spent weeks crafting mangled beyond recognition because they’ve made changes?

Typically the client has no idea that they may be doing more harm than good.   And I’ve been blamed for human error on these things before too.

One solution has been to write service manuals or guides – I’m doing that on a side project now because there will be at least 4 users writing a lot more than they are used to.  I want to make sure that I build not just something they will use, but will be able to find new, inventive uses for.  The manuals address what they should be writing, when they should be writing it, what happens when they turn in writing, how the writing should be formatted, and why they are doing all of this in the first place.

The hardest part of writing this has been identifying and addressing cognitive biases. The premise is, if I can figure out why a user may make that assumption, I can coach to prevent that assumption, saving everyone a headache.  Modern CMS’s can be edited to include custom instructions, which is particularly helpful for some basic art direction like reminding the user what resolution a photo should be.  Cognitive Bias in Design is a real problem – the need to step outside our normal modes of thinking and to help clients see the limits of theirs is key to creating designs that serve others better.

Becoming a better designer is about helping your clients become aware of, test, and overcome their cognitive biases so that they can succeed.