Hacking Cognitive Biases for Good with Alicia Salvino

This post was written by Emily Springer. Emily is a health marketer and design strategist supporting Action Design event coverage in Washington, DC.

Recently Action Design DC had the pleasure of hosting Alicia Salvino of Brave UX to talk about cognitive bias (read: arguably the whole reason why design thinking, UX and the study of behavioral psychology at large exists!). 

Alicia kicked us off, keeping us honest:

Irrationality = Universal

Irrationality = Universal

As discussed in last month’s Action Design podcast, irrationality is one of the key things human-centered designers and product managers must keep in mind to be successful. As podcast guest, Kristen Berman put it, “A BPM (Behavioral Product Manager) understands that humans have systematic irrationalities. They seek to understand these irrationalities and build for them.”

But how do we build for irrationality?

Alicia emphasizes it starts with thinking about how our minds process the world around us. She recommends thinking about bias in two different ways:

1)    Cognitive bias - Similar to Daniel Kahneman’s System 1, Alicia describes cognitive bias as how our brains unconsciously process our complex environment by categorizing all of the inputs -- accurately or not -- to make sense of them. Cognitive bias is universal and unavoidable, but creation of these associations are necessary for us to take in our surroundings.

2)    Individual bias - Individual bias is based on a person’s experiences. It is deeply personal, and involves a strong emotional connection. For example, when someone has a bad experience at a restaurant (e.g., a long wait to be seated, horrible service, average food), they might have a strong aversion to that restaurant based on that one experience.

So how do we design for irrationality? While every user context is different, there are three things Alicia urges us to keep in mind. 

1)    Ability - When testing users, note that people are notoriously bad at assessing their own ability to do something. Research shows that if you are good at something, you likely don’t think you are as good at it as you are relative to other people. This is because you understand the skill or field in-depth, and feel you have a lot more to learn. Alternatively, if you are bad at something, you don’t know how bad you are at it. This is because you know less about it. 

            When considering a consumer’s ability, it’s also critical to remember that people are always multitasking.

We might be able to see that a web page was clicked and kept open, but we have no way of knowing whether the user got interrupted, the UberEats delivery guy arrived, his or her boss called or the baby started crying. Account for this by conducting testing in a natural context where distractions happen, if possible.

2)    Ownership - The second factor to consider when being mindful of a user’s irrationality is ownership. Ask yourself, how can we design so that users can make their mark on a product? One way to create ownership through experience is to apply friction in an intentional way. For example, think about the IKEA model. IKEA allows customers to a) purchase parts, and b) build their own furniture -- creating more value among customers as they took the time and effort to build it. The investment matters to them. This concept is consistent with the i+1 learning principal and endowment effect, which says acting effort is needed for effective learning.

3)    Identity - The third way to think about irrationality, Alicia suggests, is considering the user’s identity. Ask yourself: How will the user see themselves reflected in this product or service? What is the user being remembered as?

Think in terms of BuzzFeed quizzes. Yes, these are ridiculous. But, people love them! And that’s because whether it’s a type of cat or a Disney princess, people take the click bait because they like inputting their information and seeing if they identify with something. Giving users a way to relate can help enhance their experience with a product or service.

The Takeaway

So, what does all of this come down to?

While there are no easy “hacks” to cognitive bias and designing for the irrational humans that we are (remember, we are ALL guilty!), taking the time to honestly reflect on the above can help guide us.  

What are principles of psychology you’ve applied to combat cognitive bias? Comment below.