Know your home: What politics can teach us about our own biases in UX

Millions of Americans are increasingly using Facebook and Twitter to keep updated on the world around them. During an election year, there’s even more to keep up with: consuming and sharing content, posting images, articles, videos and memes promoting or demonizing candidates and their policies. With the multitude of information available through social media, it’s easy to use it as a starting point to keep up with the election.

However, using social media that way comes at a price; there is a high risk of succumbing to cognitive biases. The most common are: the bias of availability, confirmation bias and the statistical problem of sampling bias. As an example, we’ll use my Facebook wall as the main source of election information.

The majority of support would be for Bernie Sanders, a sprinkle for Hillary Clinton and stark opposition for nearly every Republican candidate. In conjunction, one could also look at ‘Likes’ and with this information, Sanders looks like he is on pace to be the Democratic nominee with Cruz and Trump to battle it out for the Republicans. However, we know that isn’t the case. The evidence through polling data and primary endorsements (at the time of this writing) points to a very different conclusion. So, what happened? Well, I didn’t account for my “home,” that is, factors about myself that had already painted a perspective in my mind, that I was unaware of due to my biases.

I’m a Millennial. The majority of my circles on social media are too. We have disproportionately supported Sanders thus far. I lived and went to college in New Hampshire which overwhelmingly voted for Sanders in their primary. I’ve also ‘Felt the Bern’ longer than most. I was born and raised in Vermont, the home state of Sanders.

Much of the content I receive on Facebook is biased due to my friend’s demographics and geography which do not represent the population (sampling bias). I also choose to see more content in line with my political leanings and therefore engage in it more, reaffirming my beliefs (confirmation bias). Now, this isn’t to say the content isn’t credible or wrong, but my interpretation of it through the lens of those biases and not seeking outside information gives me a false perspective of the race.

Influence from cognitive biases is not isolated to only politics. It stretches into all aspects of our lives that impact decision making and judgement, which is especially troubling in the domain of UX.

As UX professionals, mitigating our biases and knowing our “home” is crucial. UX designers go through painstaking lengths to execute their vision from their head to the screen. Attempting to find that harmonious balance between science and art. This is a lot of work. But they do not do it alone. Open communication is key for mitigating biases in their designs.

Designers get feedback from fellow designers, iterating and gaining insight throughout the design cycle. But to take it a step further, designers can (when legally possible) look past their colleagues and gain feedback from others outside the design world. Getting this perspective can bring insights that may not have been possible in a design centric environment.

This should not be confused with design by committee. The designer ultimately makes their own design decisions. But without an open dialog and feedback, biases can run rampant and acknowledging their biases can help them move past their “home” perspective. Doing this can help combat the trope that designers shouldn’t test their own designs.

“But, that’s was usability studies are for.” I can hear some of you saying. “Even if a designer falls in love with their creation, we still have research. Just get it in front of real users and the design will speak for itself.”

A nice thought, but not always a safe assumption. UX researchers can come with their own biases and can lack knowledge within their own “home.” With the majority of technology being produced in Silicon Valley, there in an inherent risk of getting a misrepresentation of participants. Many who live in the Valley have connections to tech either through family or friends and chances are, more tech savvy than most. Fans of these tech giants come into studies that can negatively impact the data, by risking a disproportionate amount of outliers in the study.

Granted most usability studies are recruited via convenience sampling. Even so, researchers tend to screen participants based on demographics, product experience and domain knowledge and not so much on social and familial connections. This isn’t isolated to the Valley. Wherever you happen to be in the world running studies, understand your environment and culture, be aware of your “home” and how it could impact your data.

Another common issue is that researchers typically live with a product for a good amount of time. This high level of immersion can lead to problems. If an immersed researcher is running a usability study, there is a risk of letting leading questions, tech jargon and product specific language to leak in. Results from a usability study are only as good as your study plan and script. A poor start will lead to a poor finish and murky findings.

These problems can impact other methods. Cognitive walkthroughs, surveys and interviews could be at risk if the researcher does not know their “home.” UX researchers, like designers, should be getting feedback from colleagues. In addition, a “home” check can be used by running their plan or script by someone outside the product domain or research.

Unfortunately, simply knowing about cognitive biases isn’t enough to combat them, it’s only a piece of the behavior puzzle. But the “home” encompasses more than our biases. It involves holding yourself accountable by actively seeking feedback, critiques and input from colleagues and those outside the UX domain. Consistently approaching the issues faced in UX this way can help turn it into a habit, that coupled with bias awareness can have profound impacts on behavior change for the better.

In UX, our job is to better understand, evaluate and help solve the myriad of problems that come with the intersection of human psychology and technology. We use a mix of qualitative and quantitative research to better understand, advocate and empathize with the user (some companies apply this strategy into the core of their business with great success).

We should be creating well researched and designed products to give an experience that both delights and respects users. To help achieve this, challenge your biases, speak to others outside your domain and form it into habit. Know your “home” and move outward from there.

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