Unconscious Biases That Get In The Way Of Inclusive Design

As designers, we want to design optimal experiences for the diverse range of people a product will serve. To achieve this, we take steps in our research and design decisions to minimize the risk of alienating product-relevant social identities, including but not limited to disability, race/ethnicity, gender, skin color, age, sexual orientation, and language.

According to psychologists, we all have unconscious biases. So, designs are often biased, just like we are. This article is for anyone involved in the product design and development process — writers, researchers, designers, developers, testers, managers, and stakeholders. We’ll explore how our biases impact design outcomes and what we can do to design more inclusive experiences.

Once we recognize our unconscious biases, we can take steps to reduce their influence on our decision-making, both as individuals and as collective development and design teams. In this article, we will discuss six unconscious biases that commonly result in delivering user experiences that fall short of being inclusive.

Let’s discuss the six most common unconscious biases are:

Confirmation Bias

This is probably one of the most well-known biases, yet we tend to underestimate how much it impacts our own behavior. Confirmation bias is the tendency to unconsciously look for and give more weight to data, feedback, and users’ behavior that affirms our existing assumptions.

What Is The Impact?

When we approach our work with a confirming and validating mindset, we are more likely to skew our research plan and ignore or minimize any findings that contradict our beliefs. These flaws undermine the purpose of doing research — the goal of inclusive design — and can result in building the wrong thing or the right thing the wrong way. It can also create overconfidence in our assumptions and incline us not to conduct any research at all.

Abercrombie & Fitch dominated the teen clothing market in the 1990s and early 2000s, promoting a very exclusive, all-American, cool-kid image. In the early 2010s, when consumer preferences shifted, the company failed to listen to consumers and maintain its exclusive brand image. After three years of declining sales and pressure from investors, CEO Mike Jefferies resigned. The new CEO, Fran Horowitz, rebranded the company saying, “We are a much more inclusive company, we are closer to the customer, we’re responding to the customer wants and not what we want them to want.”

What Can We Do?

  • Be curious.
    Approach conversations with users with a curiosity mindset and ask non-leading and open-ended questions. Having someone else take notes can serve as an accountability partner as you may hear things differently and can discuss them to clear up discrepancies. And, as much as possible, document exact quotes instead of inferences.
  • Be responsive.
    View each design idea as a hypothesis with a willingness to change direction in response to research findings. Until we conduct primary research with users, our design concepts are merely our best guess based on our own experiences and limited knowledge about our users. We start with that hypothesis as a prototype, then test it with a diverse cross-section of our audience before coding. As quoted by Renee Reid at a UX Research Conference, we should “investigate not validate” our design concepts.

Optimism Bias

While optimism has been linked to many health benefits, optimism bias can be detrimental. Our tendency to minimize the potential of negative outcomes and underestimate risks when it comes to our own actions is referred to as optimism bias. Teams will optimistically think that overlooking socially responsible design will not adversely affect our users’ experience or the bottom line.

What Is The Impact?

As a result of optimistic bias, we may skip user research, ignore accessibility, disregard inclusive language, and launch products that don’t account for the diverse people who use the product.

It turns out that people want and expect products to be designed inclusively. A 2021 survey found that 65% of consumers worldwide purchase from brands that promote diversity and inclusion. And a study by Microsoft found that 49% of Gen-Z consumers in the US stopped purchasing from a brand that did not represent their values.

What Can We Do?

  • Recognize the powerful influence of negativity bias for those on the receiving end of our optimistic bias.
    Psychologists’ research has consistently affirmed that people expect to have good experiences and are more unhappy about bad experiences than good ones. So, one bad interaction has a much greater impact on our users’ perceptions about their experiences than multiple positive interactions.
  • Prioritize impact over output.
    Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman suggests running a project premortem. He has extensively researched optimism bias and ways to reduce its influence on our decision-making. Premortem is a loss aversion technique that encourages us to brainstorm potential oversights and identify preventive measures early in our processes.

Omission Bias

Similar to optimism bias, omission bias pertains to our expectations of outcomes. Omission bias occurs when we judge harmful outcomes worse when caused by action than when caused by inaction. This bias can lead us to believe that intentionally deceptive design is a greater offense than failing to implement inclusive design practices.

What Is The Impact?

When we allow our omission bias to prevail, we feel reassured by an illusion of innocence. However, delivering products to market without considering diverse user expectations has the risk of creating harmful user experiences.

This bias is a possible catalyst for skipping user research or leaving inclusive UX work in the product backlog. Some companies profit off this bias by providing accessibility overlays as a post-production solution. These third-party tools attempt to detect accessibility issues in the code and fix the problem for users on the website in real time. Unfortunately, accessibility overlays have been widely documented as problematic and can worsen access.

What Can We Do?

  • Remember that inaction is not without consequence and no less damaging to our users than deliberately harmful actions.
    When our product or service creates barriers or exclusion for our users, whether intentional or unintentional, the effect of the experience feels the same.
  • Plan for inclusive research and design by factoring the necessary time, people, and money into the product roadmap.
    Studies have found that the business cost of going back to fix a design can be 100 times as high as it would have been if the work was addressed during the development stage.

False Consensus Bias

The next two biases, false consensus and perceptual biases, are influential in how we think about others. False consensus bias is when we assume that other people think and behave the same as we do. Jakob Nielsen is known for the clever phrase, “you are not the user,” which is derived from this bias. Our false consensus bias can lead us to think, “well, I’m a user too,” when making design decisions. However, we all have a varied mix of identities — our age, ethnicity, abilities, gender, and so on — which are attributed to our unique needs and expectations.

What Is The Impact?

We design for a broad range of people, most of whom are not like us.

That is illuminated when we consider intersectionality. Law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality “to describe how race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics ‘intersect’ with one another and overlap.”

In early 2022, Olay’s senior design strategist Kate Patterson redesigned the packaging for their facial moisturizer. The new Easy Open Lid not only has side handles allowing a better grip for dexterity challenges but also has the product type in Braille and larger lettering with higher contrast for vision impairments. The product was released as a limited edition, and the company has a feedback form on its website to get feedback from users to make improvements for a second edition.

What Can We Do?

  • Avoid relying on personal preferences.
    Start with conventions and design guidelines, but don’t rely on them solely. Design guidelines are generic, so they don’t, and can’t, address all contextual situations. Optimal user experiences are the result of context-sensitive design.
  • Let go of the notion of the average user and engage with users in interviews, accessibility and usability testing, and other empirical research methods.
    Conducting primary user research is immensely insightful as it allows us to learn how intersecting identities can vary users’ expectations, behavior, and contextual use cases.

Perceptual Bias (Stereotyping)

Continuing with biases that distort how we think of others, perceptual biases include halo effect, recency bias, primary effect, and stereotyping. Regarding biases that get in the way of inclusive design, we’ll address stereotyping, which is when we have overgeneralized beliefs about people based on group attributes.

What Is The Impact?

How we gather and interpret research can be greatly influenced by stereotyping. Surveys, for example, typically don’t reveal a person’s motivations or intent. This leaves room for our speculations of “why” when interpreting survey responses, which creates many opportunities for relying on stereotyping.

The Mr. Clean Magic Eraser Sponge advertisement, “This Mother’s Day, get back to the job that really matters,” reinforced antiquated gender roles. A Dolce & Gabbana campaign included an Asian woman wearing one of their dresses and trying to use chopsticks to eat Italian food while a voiceover mocked her and made sexual innuendos. Designing based on stereotypes and tropes is likely to insult and alienate some of our user groups.

What Can We Do?

  • Include a broad spectrum of our users in our participant pool.
    The more we understand the needs and expectations of our users that are different from us (different ages, ethnicities, abilities, gender identities, and so on), the more we reduce the need to depend on generalizations and offensive constructs about various social identities.
  • Conduct assumption mapping which is an activity of documenting our questions and assumptions about users and noting the degree of certainty and risk for each.
    Assumption mapping can help us uncover how much we’re relying on oversimplified generalizations about people and which segments of the audience our design might not be accounted for and help us prioritize areas to focus our research on.

Status Quo Bias

Lastly, let’s look at a decision-making bias. Status quo bias refers to our tendency to prefer how things are and to resist change. We perceive current practices as ideal and negatively view what’s unfamiliar, even when changes would result in better outcomes.

What Is The Impact?

When we rely on default thinking and societal norms, we run the risk of perpetuating systemic social biases and alienating segments of our users. Failing to get input and critique from people across a diverse spectrum can result in missed opportunities to design broadly-valued solutions.

It took Johnson & Johnson 100 years to redesign their skin-tone colored adhesive bandages. The product was released in 1920 with a Eurocentric design that was optimal for light skin tones, and it wasn’t until 2020 that Band-aid added more shades “to embrace the beauty of diverse skin.”

What Can We Do?

  • Leaders can build non-homogenous teams and foster a workplace where it’s safe to question the status quo.
    Having team members with diverse lived experiences creates a wealth of variance and opportunities for divergent perspectives. Teams that are encouraged to challenge the default and propose alternatives have significant potential to minimize the risks of embedding biases in our UX processes.
  • As individuals, we can employ our System 2 thinking.
    Psychologist Daniel Kahneman popularized two modes of thinking in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow to encourage us to move beyond our visceral thoughts to slower, effortful, and analytical thinking. In this mode, we can question our default System 1 thinking, which is automatic and impulsive, awaken our curiosity about novel ways to approach design challenges, and find opportunities to learn about and engage with people outside our typical circles.

Summary

Designing for many means designing for demographic groups whose needs and expectations differ from ours. Our unconscious biases typically keep us in our comfort zones and stem from systemic social constructs that have historically been an anti-pattern for inclusivity.

Unconscious biases, when unrecognized and unchallenged, seep into our design practices and can insidiously pollute our research and design decisions.

We start to counter our unconscious biases by acknowledging that we have biases. You do. We all do. Next, we can take steps to be more mindful of how our designs impact the people who interact with our products so that we design inclusive experiences.

Additional Resources

  • Learning to Recognize Exclusion
    An article by Lesley-Ann Noel and Marcelo Paiva on what it means to exclude, why we do it, and tips for moving out of our comfort zones.
  • Biased by Design
    A website with information about other biases that influence the design and links to additional resources.
  • Coded Bias
    A Netflix documentary investigating bias in algorithms after M.I.T. Media Lab researcher Joy Buolamwini uncovered flaws in facial recognition technology.
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow
    A book by Daniel Kahneman about how thinking more slowly can help us reduce biased decision-making.
  • Design for Cognitive Bias
    A book by David Dylan Thomas that discusses how biases influence decision-making and techniques for noticing our own biases so we can design more consciously.
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