Anchoring

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What is Anchoring?

Anchoring is a cognitive bias that occurs if someone presents information in a way that limits an audience’s range of thought/reference. To suggest values or list options this way is to frame a “desirable” choice/reply. As anchoring can distort users’ needs, problems and more, it can impair ideation for design teams.

Learn about anchoring and what it means in design.

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“We’re blind to our blindness. We have very little idea of how little we know. We’re not designed to know how little we know.”

— Daniel Kahneman, Psychologist and economist noted for his work on the psychology of judgment and decision-making as well as behavioral economics

Anchoring means Shaping Selections

Used intentionally, anchoring (also called priming or focalism) can be an effective technique. Parents who ask their children “How often do you want to tidy your room: every day or every other day?” can appreciate its value. It’s also an age-old marketing strategy—appearing in everything from restaurant menus to car showrooms—that encourages customers to pick items because they’re a “good deal” compared with the most expensive offering (the anchor). Anchoring is often used in user experience (UX) design. When designers apply it, they take advantage of users’ inability to make wholly critical judgments in the moment, and so prompt them towards actions that should be desirable for both the users and the brand.

However, anchoring can also occur unintentionally and derail successful ideation for design teams by causing people to accept distorted views. Anchoring occurs when someone introduces a piece of information that will influence everyone regarding how they judge further bits of information, thereby leading them to jump to conclusions. 

Anchoring’s two dimensions are:  

  1. The offered values (e.g., quantity, measurements), by which:

    • Framing with larger values will prompt respondents to think big (e.g., estimate with larger numbers).

    • Framing with smaller values will prompt them to think small (e.g., estimate with smaller numbers).

  2. The wording:

    • E.g., soft qualifier terms such as “just roughly” help respondents feel more confident about what are actually inaccurate answers.

We can see how wrong such conclusions can be in an example where people were asked to estimate the Eiffel Tower’s height using scales which acted as anchors. In this example, many respondents grossly overestimated the tower’s height – simply because the larger scale anchored their view of an acceptable answer. Had anchoring not occurred, they would’ve been free to consider the tower’s height in absolute terms and try for a good guess, rather than think in terms relative to someone else’s viewpoint. So, instead of serving as a guideline, the scale was misleading.

Cognitive Anchoring Effect

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Anchoring Shoves Minds inside a Box 

The danger of anchoring is it leads to fixation and people being trapped in a set way of seeing an issue. What makes anchoring so challenging is that, as a bias, it can be extremely hard to notice. One wrong word when describing (e.g.) users’ needs can push people onto the wrong train of thought. Whatever your design process (e.g., design thinking), it’s vital to go in with an open mind and define the problem accurately. Only when you and your team have a well-rounded understanding of what your users would love to have in a solution can you proceed with the least amount of bias. A key ingredient is a good, solid problem statement, the wording of which must be balanced. The danger is that someone can mis-frame the design challenge so it prompts the team to waste time, effort and resources on an inaccurate description. For example, consider this problem statement (i.e., where certain users need to do something because of some compelling insight):

“Remote-working designers in heavy industry need to have app-controlled giant (about 1-cubic-meter) 3D printers installed in their homes because they’ll want an immediate, hands-on feel of sophisticated prototypes; however, the sheer expense of such printers means they’ll want these on a for-lease basis.”

Here, we’re suddenly caged with a set of parameters (e.g., unwieldy, rentable printers) that don’t let us ideate freely. If the problem is that designers working from home would like a way to have prototypes of engineering device/structure models more immediately available, why have we suddenly become fixated on rentable 3D printers (which also may retain sensitive data in their buffers)? 

Here are some tips to prevent anchoring bias:

  • Frame/reframe problem statements and questions to your team and users in a way that permits objectivity. Word things so that others can leverage their imagination, rationality and judgment without being hemmed in by subjective views or assumptions. 

  • Don’t rush to treat symptoms with solutions. Pay close attention to your user research and how you empathize with your users. What’s the big-picture view? How do the users’ needs look from a holistic aspect? If you jump to conclusions early on, you can cause others to miss the real problem and chase shadows of it instead.   

  • Encourage divergent thinking, lateral thinking and out-of-the-box thinking as much as possible – instead of committing to a potentially flawed view of the users, their contexts and problem/s involved.

Remember, bias can also creep into the later stages of ideation (in convergent thinking) and beyond, so be careful how you word things.  

Learn More about Anchoring

Take our Creativity course, featuring anchoring.

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The Nielsen Norman Group explore many dimensions of anchoring here.

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Literature on Anchoring

Here’s the entire UX literature on Anchoring by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Anchoring

Take a deep dive into Anchoring with our course Creativity: Methods to Design Better Products and Services .

The overall goal of this course is to help you design better products, services and experiences by helping you and your team develop innovative and useful solutions. You’ll learn a human-focused, creative design process.

We’re going to show you what creativity is as well as a wealth of ideation methods―both for generating new ideas and for developing your ideas further. You’ll learn skills and step-by-step methods you can use throughout the entire creative process. We’ll supply you with lots of templates and guides so by the end of the course you’ll have lots of hands-on methods you can use for your and your team’s ideation sessions. You’re also going to learn how to plan and time-manage a creative process effectively.

Most of us need to be creative in our work regardless of if we design user interfaces, write content for a website, work out appropriate workflows for an organization or program new algorithms for system backend. However, we all get those times when the creative step, which we so desperately need, simply does not come. That can seem scary—but trust us when we say that anyone can learn how to be creative­ on demand. This course will teach you ways to break the impasse of the empty page. We'll teach you methods which will help you find novel and useful solutions to a particular problem, be it in interaction design, graphics, code or something completely different. It’s not a magic creativity machine, but when you learn to put yourself in this creative mental state, new and exciting things will happen.

In the “Build Your Portfolio: Ideation Project”, you’ll find a series of practical exercises which together form a complete ideation project so you can get your hands dirty right away. If you want to complete these optional exercises, you will get hands-on experience with the methods you learn and in the process you’ll create a case study for your portfolio which you can show your future employer or freelance customers.

Your instructor is Alan Dix. He’s a creativity expert, professor and co-author of the most popular and impactful textbook in the field of Human-Computer Interaction. Alan has worked with creativity for the last 30+ years, and he’ll teach you his favorite techniques as well as show you how to make room for creativity in your everyday work and life.

You earn a verifiable and industry-trusted Course Certificate once you’ve completed the course. You can highlight it on your resume, your LinkedIn profile or your website.

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