The Content Strategy Knowledge Base aims to support practitioners, students and teachers of content strategy.

Read about the project Go

Design for Cognitive Bias

Web Design

"Design for Cognitive Bias" by David Dylan Thomas is relevant for the course "Change Management & Internal Communication" as it provides insights into the ethical implications of bias in content creation and management, directly aligning with the course's focus on ethics and governance for content teams. The book offers practical strategies for navigating and mitigating cognitive biases, which are essential for effective change management and internal communications within the context of an organization's content system. Furthermore, understanding cognitive biases is important to enhancing knowledge management practices by ensuring that content is accessible, inclusive, and effectively supports internal users, thereby reinforcing the course's aim to foster a high-functioning content team.

At its core, the book is an actionable guide aimed at designers, product managers, and anyone involved in creating digital experiences. Through a structured exploration across four chapters, Thomas elucidates how biases affect personal decision-making, user interactions, stakeholder perspectives, and, ultimately, the design solutions we propose. Each chapter not only diagnoses the problems associated with cognitive biases but also prescribes thoughtful strategies to mitigate their impact, promoting more equitable and user-centric designs.

How People Make Decisions #

In the first chapter, David Dylan Thomas delves into how cognitive biases influence decision-making, often without our conscious awareness. Here's a brief overview of the biases he discusses:

Autopilot Thinking: This refers to our brain's tendency to rely on automatic, unconscious processes for most decisions. It's efficient because it saves mental energy, but it can lead us to overlook important details and make errors in judgment.

Illusion of Control: This bias leads us to overestimate our ability to control events around us. For example, people might believe they can influence the outcome of a roulette wheel by throwing the ball in a certain way. This illusion can affect both users and designers by making them assume more control over systems and outcomes than they actually have, potentially leading to overconfidence in their decisions and designs.

Anchoring Bias: Anchoring occurs when an individual relies too heavily on an initial piece of information (the "anchor") to make subsequent judgments. For instance, if a designer sees an early user test suggesting one design is slightly better, they might undervalue later evidence showing another design is actually superior.

Confirmation Bias: This well-documented bias describes our tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms our preexisting beliefs or hypotheses. It's particularly insidious in decision-making and design because it can lead us to give undue weight to evidence that supports our initial ideas and ignore evidence that contradicts them.

Thomas's exploration of these biases sets the stage for understanding the profound impact they have on both the process of design and the user experience. By recognizing these subconscious processes, designers and users can better navigate the biases that might otherwise lead them astray.

User Bias #

In Chapter 2, David Dylan Thomas focuses on biases that particularly affect how users perceive and interact with designs. Here's a brief overview of the biases he covers:

Cognitive Fluency: This bias refers to the preference for things that are easy to think about or understand. If a website or app is designed with clear, simple language and an intuitive interface, users are more likely to find it appealing and trustworthy because their brains can process the information more effortlessly.

Power of Storytelling: Humans are naturally drawn to stories because they help us make sense of complex information and connect emotionally with the content. When designs or messages are framed as stories, they are more likely to engage users and be remembered. This bias demonstrates how narrative structures can influence user engagement and retention.

Influence of Visual Presentation: The way information is visually presented can greatly affect a user's perception and decisions. This encompasses everything from the use of colors and fonts to the layout of elements on a page. Visually appealing designs are perceived as more credible and can significantly affect user satisfaction and trust.

Thomas argues that by understanding these biases, designers can create more effective, inclusive, and user-friendly products. Prioritizing clarity, simplicity, and inclusivity in design helps accommodate these biases, making digital environments more accessible and enjoyable for users.

Stakeholder Bias #

In Chapter 3, the author turns his attention to the biases affecting those who commission, oversee, and approve design projects. This chapter delves into the complexities of decision-making processes among stakeholders and offers insights into navigating these challenges. Here's a brief overview of the key concepts:

Moral Hazard of Gameplay: This refers to situations where stakeholders might prioritize their own interests or the game-like aspects of a project over its actual goals, potentially leading to decisions that are not in the best interest of the users or the project's success. It highlights how personal or departmental gains can skew decision-making away from optimal outcomes.

Pitfalls of Misaligned Incentives: Misaligned incentives occur when the goals of different stakeholders or departments are not aligned with the overarching objectives of a project. This misalignment can lead to conflicts of interest and decisions that may benefit one group but harm the project or organization as a whole. Recognizing and addressing these misalignments is crucial for project success.

Strategic Presentation and Framing: Thomas emphasizes the importance of how design choices and project outcomes are presented to stakeholders. The way information is framed can significantly impact stakeholders' perceptions and decisions. Effective framing and strategic presentation can help secure buy-in by aligning project goals with stakeholders' interests and biases.

This chapter underscores the need for awareness of stakeholder biases in the design and approval process. By understanding these biases, designers and project managers can better navigate the complex landscape of organizational politics, ensuring that design choices are made in the best interest of both users and the project's success.

Our Own Bias #

In Chapter 4, David Dylan Thomas encourages designers to introspect and address their own biases. This reflective chapter is pivotal, as it acknowledges that designers' perspectives significantly influence the creation and interpretation of their work. Here's a breakdown of the biases discussed:

Notational Bias: Thomas discusses how the limitations of Western musical notation can fail to capture the nuances of music from other cultures, illustrating how the tools and frameworks we rely on can inherently carry biases. This type of bias points to the limitations of our systems and languages, influencing how we document and understand information from a culturally narrow perspective.

Design of Gender Selection Fields: This example highlights the bias inherent in designing forms and data collection mechanisms, particularly around gender identity. Traditional binary gender options exclude non-binary and transgender individuals, reflecting and perpetuating societal biases. Thomas argues for more inclusive design practices that recognize and accommodate a wider spectrum of identities.

Through these examples, Thomas advocates for greater self-awareness among designers about their own biases. Recognizing these biases is the first step towards mitigating their impact on design work. Incorporating diverse perspectives into the design process is crucial for creating more inclusive, equitable, and empathetic products and experiences. This chapter serves as a call to action for designers to critically examine their assumptions and broaden their understanding to better serve all users.

Key Themes and Insights #

Navigating Biases in Design:

Thomas emphasizes the inevitability of biases but argues for their thoughtful navigation through design practices. He illustrates how biases can be leveraged for positive outcomes, such as using story-driven content to enhance engagement or applying friction in design to encourage more deliberate user actions.

Ethical Design and Responsibility:

A recurring theme is the ethical responsibility of designers to acknowledge and counteract biases. Thomas champions transparency, inclusivity, and the prioritization of user welfare, challenging the industry to adopt a more humane approach to design.

Collaboration and Stakeholder Engagement:

The book highlights the importance of collaboration in overcoming biases. By designing conversations and engagements that account for different perspectives, Thomas shows how collective brainstorming and critical analysis can lead to more innovative and less biased outcomes.

Where to go from here #

References #

Thomas, D. D. (2020). Design for Cognitive Bias: Using Mental Shortcuts for Good Instead of Evil. A Book Apart.