How to overcome Fixation and Bias in Creative Problem Solving
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- 3 years ago
Bias is the way humans interpret and evaluate the context and information about something according to how these are presented or how they perceive these through the lens of their values and beliefs. Bias can impair judgment and decision-making, so designers work to overcome insight problems by taking fresh approaches.
Learn about bias and how it affects design.
“The world is full of people who have never, since childhood, met an open doorway with an open mind.”
— E. B. White, Author of popular children’s fiction such as “Charlotte’s Web”
In a far more immediately dangerous world, prehistoric humans learned to quickly frame situations to help them react with lightning-fast decisions. Millennia later, bias has the more negative associations of social prejudice, disadvantage and otherness. Still, it’s part of the human condition, complexly intertwined with instinct but at odds with rationality. For example, bias can let us accept words from some people (e.g., politicians who represent our values) which we’d reject from others. Nevertheless, if we don’t check our biased assumptions, they can cause false predictions and bad judgments.
Bias—like the umbrella term cognitive biases—is a barrier to ideation, especially from an organizational standpoint. It also arises in designers, simply because all humans are subject to some form of unconscious bias, and it’s far easier to detect bias in others than within ourselves. We have blind spots to how we perceive the world. In everyday linear thinking, the apparently logical steps we take to find solutions to problems sometimes depend on the biases we have. Moreover, even as processes such as design thinking prompt us to think more openly, the first obstacle is often the same bias that colors our views elsewhere. And as we push to explore the edges of the design space and think outside the box, it can become harder to notice how far we shift from rational objectivity as we go along with our own, subjective “realities”.
Major biases that can affect ideation include:
Anchoring – When you frame your questions in a certain way, you can influence the responses: e.g., asking users “Using 1–5 stars, how would you rate this design?” versus “How flawed would you say the design is: 70%? 30%?”.
Bandwagon – It’s easier to go along with the majority’s view than derail a discussion by countering with opposing ideas. Also called groupthink, this is a particular risk in ideation sessions.
Confirmation – We typically prefer looking for evidence to support our hypotheses or existing views of things. This leads to foregone conclusions. So, even if conflicting data arises (e.g., “35% of users dislike this feature”), it’s more comfortable if we downplay/overlook its value.
To help improve your ideation efforts, design’s success and more, here are some tips:
Define your problem accurately so you can start to understand it fully. When starting your project, mind how you word the problem – the terms you frame it with can create bias. That’s why design thinking is so helpful, as you can begin to empathize with your users. And the personas you make can help wrench away assumptions to reveal how users from other backgrounds might truly experience things.
Swap in other actors in user stories (when you use storytelling). This can help if you’re concerned about accidentally making assumptions about your users regarding their gender, ethnicity, etc. By changing the actors and background in the story, you can spot if your view had distorted the previous version. Then, you can ask yourself why you made those assumptions about (e.g.) elderly users.
Look past “logical” norms (e.g., when you notice yourself thinking “This solution won’t work because the world doesn’t work that way!”). Your team may unconsciously act on preconceived generalizations about (e.g.) users’ socio-economic status or accessibility needs. For example, “Users with disabilities won’t need this high-intensity fitness app!” is a rotten foundation.
Get disruptive and suggest different (even unrealistic) scales to a problem. Challenge yourself to challenge the notion that a single approach is “the done thing”. Because bias can have outrageous effects, try to be outrageous and go for (e.g.) bad ideas to get a new perspective. This can break your bias and fixation on “the way to do it” – and help expose other ways of seeing the problem and different kinds of solutions. If you were to (e.g.) create a smartphone that was the size of a football field, what would that take? How would you have to adapt to the problem?
Use Six Thinking Hats. This method helps you adopt alternative viewpoints. You examine problems from six perspectives, one at a time (e.g., red hat = focusing on knee-jerk reactions/feelings; black hat = focusing on potentially negative outcomes), and so can achieve a tighter grasp of what your problem truly demands.
Overall, remember that bias is natural but—as it can slant your view of even the most innocent aspects of your users, etc.—is something to keep in check throughout your design process.
Take our Creativity course, including bias.
This blog explores several impactful biases from thought-provoking aspects.
Here’s another insightful piece, with helpful handling tips.
Consider these insights about bias from another angle.
Here’s the entire UX literature on Bias by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:
Take a deep dive into Bias with our course Creativity: Methods to Design Better Products and Services .
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We believe in Open Access and the democratization of knowledge. Unfortunately, world class educational materials such as this page are normally hidden behind paywalls or in expensive textbooks.