Design is subjective in production and interpretation. And yet there’s nothing more objective than a common judgment on what sucks and what’s cool. We form our worldviews based on the essential concepts, personal experiences, craving, lies, and etc.
The image of what’s right and what’s wrong is sometimes imposed on us by a total stranger. We can fall into a trap of someone else’s interest and acquire a certain bias from them. We feel like our own resistance we get to experience towards certain ideas comes out of nowhere. Well, it doesn’t.
Identifying your bias
A bias or a cognitive block unfurls itself full-force in a collaborative effort. Specifically, in design this means explaining the logic, navigation, and overall UX to a client, getting the PM on the same page, and syncing the vision with a developer.
A lot of times this turns into a real problem. Something that results in a weird trade-off, dissatisfaction, and a general fishy aura. The projects that get caught in that loop are doomed to failure because they are hard to be devoted to. This problem is rooted in one of the two reasons:
Either someone with an authority over the project doesn’t know what they are doing, or it’s a good ol’ tug-of-war between everybody involved.
The first can’t be fixed by fine-tuning the approach, as the point of this lies beyond the sphere of UX talk. As for the second one, if we look into the reasons why tug-of-wars are even possible, we might find a way to fix the flow and be efficient rather than rigid.
The beacons of bias
Every cognitive bias is there for a reason — primarily to save our brains time or energy.
The biases and the patterns we create or adhere to are there to solve some kind of a problem. Understanding the bias is the key to solving the root problem or finding a way around it. Here are the beacons of some of the most common productivity demolishing biases:
- Whenever you feel protective over your work not because you genuinely believe it’s the best possible solution but because you want to defend the effort you’ve put in — you are biased.
- Whenever you feel like a person you collaborate with does not have a background of knowledge or the ability to understand where you’re coming from — you are biased.
- Whenever you believe there is a place for a personal bite on you during the discussion or critique — you are biased.
These might all be totally natural reactions to the incompetencies of the people you work with, but what if they are not? What do you do if you bump into the symptoms of biases in other people?
This is where you have to take a step back and analyze the behavior leading to the problem. The states of mind that shape the reactions are of particular interest.
The states of mind
Biases can save time on comprehension and deconstruction if they are applied rightfully. However, they can result in self-perpetuated holdbacks preventing your effort from taking off. We tend to attribute the problems of resistance to the issues of miscommunication with the others or some sort of a flaw that won’t let them get it. That in and of itself is a mental bias, called:
In some cases, it helps alleviate the inefficiencies that result from information asymmetries. In other situations, it’s dangerous because the way that knowledge is conveyed may not be the best for those without the knowledge.
In design, this bias morphs into a different entity that I’d call The Curse of Aesthetic Awareness. Even though a large portion of the interface and experience design can be perceived as the exact science, the main thing about the design is it has to evoke emotions which is impossible to reach through a pragmatic frame. The fact of being a designer already puts the onus on you and it deepens every time you face difficulties. Some skilled professionals can even roll back to their default behavior, ignore the well-stated obligations, and never ask for advice or help.
This comes partially from the belief a task can be accomplished and partially from the fact that you are expected to accomplish it.
This takes to another mental bias that can block your urge to succeed and transform it into the urge to not fail and it’s called:
By and large, this bias represents the tendency to give disproportionate weight to trivial issues and avoid specialized or complex subjects. When we design things that are easy to grasp or seem more rewarding instead of complicated and responsible ones, this is this law guiding us. It almost feels counterintuitive because it’s supposed to be the great accomplishments with a fair share of struggle that forge the pros. Ironically, the stronger the reputation, the lesser the chance you get to conquer another peak. By any means, we avoid the situations that can compromise our credibility and cast doubt on our competence.
The choice to strangle creativity in favor of security might come as a treacherous solution for a lot of designers struggling with credibility.
This concept is connected to a state of mind which can be the ultimate cognitive block in team collaboration.
The scarcity mindset
which means you fail, someone else wins and vice versa — other person finding success means you losing it. The destructive and unnecessary competition between the team members can exist with the leadership not even aware of it.
The impact this unhealthy environment has on a team’s performance is immense. The scarcity mindset leaves everybody threatened by the success of each other which nullifies the wins on the scale of the company and the entire business model turns into a zero-sum game, where the total gains of the participants are added up and the total losses are subtracted, summing everything to zero.
Opposed to the scarcity mindset stands the abundance mentality which arises from having a high self-worth and security and leads to the sharing of profits, recognition, and responsibility. First introduced in Stephen R. Covey’s book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, the idea of building the abundance mentality marked a place for itself in the business culture of many organizations.
Using bias to stay creative
We only have so much time to learn the cause-and-effect relationships of every single action we take. Without pattern recognition, we’d be screwed. And pattern recognition manifests itself in a number of mental biases.
Absorbing information impartially is a perishable skill.
At some point, the number of encounters with other people reaches the level where we can predict their reactions, reasoning, and motives. Sometimes, however, we are caught in between. This is where our brain taps into a cognitive bias to avoid confusion.
The problems biases solve
Buster Benson did a tremendous job of categorizing mental biases and grouping them according to the problems they solve. He landed on four:
#1 Too much information
With the amount of data in the world, it would be impossible to process all of it equally.
Our mind will opt for the signs indicating that information can be of any use. Same way, our brain will ignore what it considers redundant.
The information we run into the most creates contexts in our memory. The details that strike us are the ones we’ll pay attention to. The unusual behavior of things results in our brain adding significance to them. On top of those, we already come with a number of our own beliefs and experiences and we lean towards the information that confirms them.
#2 Not enough meaning
To get a grasp of the things we don’t know much about, we have to rely on our brain’s ability to fill in the blanks and register the concept into our existing view of the world.
This is where we run into a lot of biases and stereotypes, as it’s the experience we’ve been subjected to that makes amends for insufficient information.
Generalities, authority biases, and bandwagon effects kick in big time if don’t develop the diligence to fill the gaps with the right notions. Another danger here is a simplification of things that otherwise take to long to explore. If we work in teams, we often formulate our perception about team members and start thinking we know what they are thinking. At the same time, we think the state of mind we are currently in will not change dramatically.
One of our natural stimulants is the feeling that we do not have much time. The window of opportunity to reach success in life is short and everything we do, we do keeping that in mind. The ability to act fast based on the data you have now is what makes us human. In the words of Winston Wolf from Pulp Fiction:
“If I’m curt with you it’s because time is a factor. I think fast, I talk fast, and I need you to guys to act fast if you wanna get out of this. So pretty please, with sugar on top, clean the fuckin’ car”.
Urgency requires confidence which might manifest itself in overconfidence and optimism bias. We are also taught to complete things and feel like losers if we opt out. Check out the IKEA effect. The fear of overdue makes us stick to joint responsibility as team failure is only a fraction of a failure for every individual.
#4 What is critical?
Unfortunately, our memory and focus are not infinite. We have to fight to keep certain things in mind while sacrificing others. It has to be a somewhat conscious decision, otherwise, our brain will do it without asking. We look for familiar things because they are less terrifying, we notice unusual things because they are easier to remember.
The problem is, our mind can contribute to the reinforcement of certain memories and assumptions.
In order to generalize, we have to cut off a lot of specifics, which means we stop ourselves from evolving based on the evolution of ideas we work with. In other words, we form the prejudice. The events that impact us the most are the ones that our mind will store and generalize based upon. However, that impact might be the result of odd circumstance, personal attitude, or some sort of erroneous matter.
Cognitive biases are our natural responses to the chaos of the world around us. Biases can help a lot in some cases but cause troubles in other. Luckily, we are not restricted by biases alone. We have proven ourselves as sentient beings able to prevail over nature through knowledge.
This knowledge gives us the ultimate power to understand our visceral reactions without losing the momentum and bashing productivity and creativeness.
This is a beautiful poster designed by John Manoogian III of the bias groups formulated by Buster Benson:
Avoiding blocks, maintaining creativeness
Designers know that in order to think outside the box, you have to perceive every project with an open mind but with a skilled hand. As more information reveals itself, designers must adapt to it and create new experiences based on that information. This is where biases come into play as our mind’s reaction to the accumulated data. Addressing that data in a way that avoids biases is the first key to maintain creativeness:
As Christy Wampole wrote in “How To Live Without Irony”, irony and indifference became the default attitudes of our generation. The rampant sarcasm we approach life with naturally reflects on the way we create things. When there is no genuine interest in the design problem you are trying to solve, you can’t expect the solution to speak to the users as well. Avoiding generalization in even the most obvious aspects will help stay open and passionate about the product you are designing.
“Leave your ego at the door” is what they tell you when you come to a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu school for the first time. Doesn’t matter individual sport runs on ego, it’s the mindset that the coaches try to put you in that forms your initial success — not quitting because your ego gets crushed. When you are overconfident because of the knowledge, experience, and authority it might be a bias working. Instead, be skeptical about your own assumptions and be wary of confirmation bias.
At some point, someone will find a critical error in your work. The way you’ll handle it can potentially define the future course of your career. Even the most genuine effort can fail and that’s okay. But if you let your bias stay in the way of making a growing experience out of it, there will be no way to stop such errors from happening over and over again. You can be your own harshest critic and your biggest fan but if you don’t ask enough questions to yourself, someone else will. Even the greatest ideas at some point had to pass the test of doubt.
This has a lot to do with the design environment in the first place. Working for various clients means some will stick to your vision and flow, but some will require you to change your habits and adapt to theirs. The reasoning might be hidden deeper than you would want to go, so it is better to be flexible when it’s necessary. This doesn’t mean you need to abandon your old and proven ways, but rather find a new angle to apply them.
The problem distributed or outsourced teams, as well as freelancers, face at times is the disconnect between the members working on the same product. A bias telling you that developers don’t have what it takes to understand design is the enemy. The only way to defeat it is to involve people in your mindset. Not only this is a friendly way to do things, but it also shows you are not full of yourself.
You don’t need to change your mindset to change your behavior about certain things. In fact, you’d go crazy if you do that for every design issue you face or every project you become a part of. Your personality is what shapes your creativeness. However, if the personality comes with a number of biases, prejudices, defensive stances, and a great deal of roughness, your creativeness will get strangled by obstacles outside the design.
To grow professionally, you need to learn where to control you instinct and where to let them kick in. Maintaining the right attitude and the mindset can keep you running smooth across multiple teams and a wide variety of projects for years. Furthermore, mastering that approach means being able to teach it as well. Isn’t this a dream career?
Influencers nowadays, shape the way we see things. Who are your design influencers and what are their biases?
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