Cognitive biases and their influence on UX

Humans are born biased. We behave in bizarre and irrational ways. In a way that’s what makes us human. That’s what keeps us unique.

“Humans are hardly rational, and in fact, irrationality has defined much of human life and history. The desire to impose rationality, to make people or society more rational mutates into spectacular outbursts of irrationality.”
– Justin E.H. Smith

What is a cognitive bias?

The term was first defined by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in the 1970s. The central message of his work was that “human reason left to its own devices is apt to engage in a number of fallacies and systematic errors”.

The human brain is designed to settle on speedy and compelling choices as opposed to making decisions based on facts. Rather than acting soundly, we like to act quickly and in the moment. The brain processes information by relying on mental strategies to simplify, store, and access this information on command.

“Brains take in everything and only stream the information that fits within our model of the world. This is referred to as “mental accounting.” A good accountant doesn’t bore you with every detail of the process, but rather gives you a final balance sheet, which you care about. Our brains work the same.”
– Sean Sergio

Heuristics are these natural mental shortcuts that the human brain creates to structure feelings/convictions and choices in our everyday life. While heuristics can accelerate human critical thinking and decision making, they are prone to errors. These errors are known as cognitive biases.

“A cognitive bias refers to a systematic illogical thinking pattern that affects judgments and decisions”
– Anyi Sun

Cognitive biases are the deliberate blunders that creep up as a consequence of our heuristics. None of us are completely immune to heuristics and prejudices – and this is the very reason we need to be aware of it.

Can UX designers afford to be irrational or biased?

This may seem like a rhetorical question…

A large chunk of our work life is spent in making decisions. The decisions we make in our interfaces directly influence the lives of people who use it. These decisions, if successful grow to shape human behaviour and shape reality in a major way.

Cognitive bias codex

Every individual owns their unique sense of reality. As UX designers we are trained to make decisions based on  rationale, logic and intent. Having said that, we cannot simply get rid of our own cognitive biases. They are deeply etched in our psyche and worldview. The reality is that our design decisions are never as objective as we would like them to be, even if we have data to prove their need or merit.

It’s dire for UX designers to understand cognitive biases for two important reasons:

  1. So that we can be aware of our own biases when we make design choices.
  2. So that we can benefit from the inclinations of our users and capitalize on this insight to craft human centred experiences.

“Designing for people means designing for all of their quirks and eccentricities”
– Dana Chisnell

For the course of this article, we will explore 6 cognitive biases and how they influence the business of UX.

Without further ado, let’s dig in:

#1 The Anchoring Bias

Humans rely heavily on the first piece of information they receive.

Anchoring Bias
Source :

Value is often set by anchors in our minds which we use as mental reference points, influencing our decision-making no matter how arbitrary the anchors may be.”
– Vassilis Tziokas

Example: The apple does not fall far from the tree

If your parents are both very long-lived, one would automatically expect that they will also live an extended life irrespective of the difference in lifestyle for both generations. This anchoring notion can be fatal.

How does anchoring bias affect UX designers?

The first piece of information we receive usually becomes the anchor. As UX designers we must be aware of this bias and keep a check on it through the various stages of the product development cycle.

Fixation: We designers and our stakeholders tend to fixate on the initial set of designs or prototypes that get reviewed. We must not let this bias come in the way of maturing our design ethos as the project progresses.

User Testing: Users have a tendency to prefer the first versions of a design they were introduced to simply because it was the first one, not because it was actually better. We need to manage the anchoring bias to receive objective feedback through multiple rounds of tests. Only then can we be through with our design validation process and not be hit by our user’s inherent biases.

How can we use the anchoring bias to influence users?

Good anchors help users set their expectation for what’s normal or exceptional, lower the cognitive cost of decision making, and can even increase the perceived value of a product.”
– Therese Fessenden, NN Group

Example: Price anchoring 

Price anchoring refers to the practice of establishing a price point, which the users can use as a reference point while making purchasing decisions.

Price anchoring

Example: Price anchoring + Suggestion

As humans, we may enjoy risks and extremes in theory, but a majority of us like to keep with the herd and not wander to extremes. The middle price point seems like a bargain when cued together visually against the other two prices. The higher and lower price points act as anchor prices, which trigger users towards purchasing the suggested/highlighted price.

Price anchoring + Suggestion
Price anchoring + Suggestion

We can use anchors in our interface to help users quickly figure out what matters the most and help them decide what’s best for them.

#2 Bandwagon effect

Humans flock together…

The bandwagon effect refers to the tendency people have to adopt a certain behaviour, style, or attitude simply because everyone else is doing it. The more individuals adopt a specific pattern or trend, the more probable it turns into that others will get on board with.

Bandwagon effect

Fear of exclusion plays an important role in the bandwagon effect. going along with what the rest of the group is doing is a way to ensure inclusion and social acceptance.”
– Kendra Cherry

Example: Diets: When everyone is adopting a certain fad diet, people become more likely to try the diet themselves. Does Ketosis ring a bell?

How does bandwagon bias affect UX designers?

User Research: while conducting user research in a group,  participants tend to offer responses are that socially acceptable instead of what they actually think/feel. Participants fear to reveal their thoughts based on the fear of being judged by other participants.

Why? -because of the Hawthorne effect!

When people have knowledge of them being observed, they subconsciously change their behaviour.

To ease our user’s inhibitions, we must encourage our users to accept that there is no right or wrong way of completing tasks during the research/ testing. Smaller warm-up tasks at the beginning of the session and debriefing at the end of the session can help users overcome this effect and be honest.

How can we use the bandwagon effect to influence users?

Social Proof

Social proof is the impact that the activities and mentalities of the individuals around us (either, in actuality, or on the web) have on our own behaviour. The “proof” component is the possibility that if others are doing it (or saying it), it must be right.

Logos of associated partners help build credibility for a business.

Logos of associated partners help build credibility for a business

Reviews are first-hand experiences and testimonials of existing users. They give an overview of the proof of the pudding.

Reviews are first-hand experiences and testimonials of existing users

Users are keen to see how many people have ‘come before’, no matter how highly recommended the product, brand or the service is. Sharing statistics is a way to gain the user’s trust through transparency.

Sharing statistics is a way to gain the user’s trust through transparency

#3 Choice supportive bias

Choice supportive bias

Humans defend a decision or exaggerate how good it was just because they made it

Choice-supportive bias is that the tendency to remember our choices as better than they really were because we tend to over attribute positive features to options we chose and negative features to options we do not choose.

We all suffer from choice-supportive bias as we don’t have full access to several of the underlying motivations that drive our behaviour. As a result, humans post-rationalize reasons to support their decisions and seek to justify their choices.

Example: I buy an expensive bottle of wine, It’s new and most people I know have not tried it. I try it …. And it tastes better than it is actually is.

Is my brain tricking me into thinking the more I pay for the wine the more I enjoy it?

How does choice supportive bias affect UX designers?

“Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.”
— Michael Shermer

We UX designers are ‘pattern machines’. We can see designs and obsess over connections, even where there are none. In other words, it is in our natural inclination to create order from chaos. That’s the way we are wired. It’s natural that the choice supportive bias comes in the way of making radical design decisions to realize new product opportunities for the business.

Sunk Cost Fallacy

The deeper we get into the puzzle of making design choices the harder it becomes to come out. The more we invest in a decision, the harder it becomes to abandon it. We defend our previously made decisions with such firm ground that it gets difficult to make space for new design choices.

Being aware of it can make all the difference.

How can we use the choice supportive bias to influence users?

“We Circle the endless loop of set paradigms”
– Shekhar Badve, Lokus Design

The Choice supportive bias works in our arsenal once we have acquired a customer. Positively reinforcing the user’s perception of the product/service/ brand at play is the key. Testimonials, evidence of  product superiority, and reminders of why the customer chose this design/application helps humans renew the vows they internalized while making their purchasing decisions.

Think twice before ordering and assembling your next IKEA shelf.

How can we use the choice supportive bias to influence users?
How can we use the choice supportive bias to influence users?

#4 Confirmation Bias

Humans act in accordance with their beliefs about who they are.

“People generally see what they look for and hear what they listen for”
-Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is a tendency to pay attention to information that confirms preconceived notions. When people would like a particular idea or concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true. They are motivated by wishful thinking. This error leads the individuals to stop gathering information when the evidence gathered thus far confirms the views or prejudices one would adore to be true.

How does confirmation bias affect UX designers?

User Research: Confirmation biases limit our ability to hunt and uncover the truth. It’s natural to have some prior knowledge about a user group and anchor our understanding to it. The goal of user research is to learn more about users instead of validating preconceived notions the designers have about the users.

How does confirmation bias affect UX designers?

Usability testing: Blast from the past: knowingly or unknowingly at some stage, we have all been there. No judgments passed… We are conducting a usability test to test out a UX pattern we invested hours working on. We have high certainty that the pattern would work. While analysing the test outcomes, we tend to neglect proof that doesn’t bolster our theories.

Who won: Our Bias
Result: Inaccuracy

How do the users get influenced by the confirmation bias?

Observer expectancy effect

“Expectations of the experimenter as to the likely outcome of the experiment acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy, biasing the results in the direction of the expectation”

When conducting user interviews or testing, we must be aware of our tone and body language and how unintentionally it can influence the user to behave in a certain way. It’s important to do mock sessions and receive feedback from our teammates on language, tones, and non-verbal cues that are not neutral before conducting the research on real participants.

It’s helpful to step back. Check and recheck.

#5 Conservatism bias

Humans dislike revision. Period.

“In cognitive psychology and decision science, conservatism or conservatism bias is a bias in human information processing, which refers to the tendency to revise one’s belief insufficiently when presented with new evidence.”
– Wikipedia

Conservatism bias

This bias dates back to our school days. Studying the textbook won’t crack the exam, the revision will. 

How does Conservatism bias affect UX designers?

We must be wary of what the users initially revealed in the research versus how they react while testing the interface. We must pay attention to data points that break our hypothesis and carefully revaluate our design decisions based on new evidence throughout the product development cycle.

Developer feedback: As UX designers, we are prejudiced at testing our own designs. Finding our own bugs can be a slippery task, lathered with bias. Developers play a significant role as sceptics in objectively testing our designs. We must make it a practice to engage developers early on in the design process to beat our own biases and attachments. It’s equally important to listen as it is to simply defend our choices.

Overcoming our Conservatism bias will keep our design process iterative and growth-centric. It is one of the biggest challenges to accept as a problem solver

How can we use the Conservatism bias to influence users?

Humans are attracted to novelty, but at the same time, we prefer something we are familiar with. Because people experience mental stress when presented with complex data and learning curves, a simple option is to easily stick with a previous belief.

Ever wondered why every upgrade in an iPhone as radical as it maybe has similar motor controls in its hardware?. Well, the flip side is that now we know why the iPhone users pay a premium price for its successors even for a minimal value add from their current devices.

iPhone users pay a premium price for its successors even for a minimal value add from their current devices

Now that we learned how to spot these biases, we must be aware of the most blasphemous bias.… The villain of all Villains…

#6 Blindspot Bias

Humans  preach one thing, and do another.

Blindspot Bias

Failing to recognize and acknowledge your own biases is a bias in itself. A hypocritical one at that too. It’s common to spot cognitive biases in other people than to look for the same in oneself.

Example: we all are attracted to a specific style or method for working. We will, in general, attract individuals who reflect our own specific manners of seeing the world. We are more likely to notice bias in others than ourselves because our own biases seem unprejudiced to us, they are well reasoned in our brains.

How does the blind spot bias affect UX designers?

As UX designers, we can cancel out this bias with a healthy demeanour and good intentions. Getting our work reviewed by our peers and sharing our rationale helps make it stronger by picking it apart.

How does the blind spot bias affect UX designers?

If we want to make better decisions in our personal lives and as a society, we ought to be aware of these biases and seek ways to constantly challenge our understanding of this world. That’s one powerful way to keep getting better at making choices.

Let’s put the pixels away and have a moment of introspection…

A 3 step Checklist for spotting the blind spot in our design process:

  • Given our way of seeing this, what might be some different viewpoints that emerge in the investigation?
  • What data / behavioural insight might we need to pay attention to that we are not considering?
  • What would the devil’s advocate say about this situation?

How can we use the blind spot bias to influence users?

Consumers also tend to believe that they are conscious of “how” and “why” they create our decisions. There is a fine line between persuasion and manipulation. And this fine line most likely sits on the user’s blind spots. As UX designers, it’s our responsibility to educate the users on the good, the bad, and the ugly and facilitate decision making by making the experience transparent and genuinely good.

More power to the user = Transparency = Accountability = Trust = human centred experiences

How can we use the blind spot bias to influence users?

Lastly, I would like to conclude by saying once we address our biases we will become far more effective within the way we relate to the planet and its people. Kickstarting the engine of self-awareness is all it takes to move forward and upward towards our most authentic selves.



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