Einstellung Effect

Your constantly-updated definition of Einstellung Effect and collection of videos and articles

What is Einstellung Effect?

The Einstellung effect is a phenomenon that occurs when designers are so used to approaching problems in some ways that they overlook better ways. It is a cognitive trap arising from a desire to find familiar features in problems and reuse shortcuts. So, experience can prime the mind and block creative problem-solving.

“We tend to formulate our problems in such a way as to make it seem that the solutions to those problems demand precisely what we already happen to have at hand. With respect to the conduct of inquiry, and especially in behavioral science, I label this effect “the law of the instrument.” The simplest formulation I know of the law of the instrument runs this way: give a small boy a hammer and it will turn out that everything he encounters needs pounding.”

— Abraham Kaplan, Philosopher and pioneering investigator of the behavioral sciences

See how problematic the Einstellung effect can be.

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Einstellung (“Attitude” or “Setting” in German) – when Experience is a Curse

Psychologist Abraham Luchins and his wife, Edith, first documented the Einstellung effect in 1942. Test subjects were asked to pour water between different-sized containers to reach exact amounts – and solved several problems with the same solutions. However, one problem had a different solution; they approached it in the same way and failed. As they’d established a set problem-solving path, the participants primed themselves to apply this elsewhere – regardless. Indeed, human minds are cognitive misers; a “shortcut” is appealing even if it involves needless complexity; likewise, it’s easy to rely on experience to color our judgments. And, over time, experience can condition the mind to follow set procedures. This is where expertise and ignorance coexist.

In user experience (UX) design, the effect blocks ideation because design teams can enter the design space without realizing how their own bias can trap them into false views of the users and each problem to address. By injecting distorted insights and ignoring the real dimensions involved, the team can end up with prolonged creative constipation, dwelling on imagined difficulties and/or—worse—ultimately pursuing a mirage of the “best” idea.

In the 21st-century milieu of technologies that have captured the popular imagination, it’s easy for teams to assume similar solutions will work on their own users’ problems. However, innovation demands usefulness and novelty. Design problems are invariably complex and need extensive research before a team can understand what to start looking for in a solution. In the design thinking process, for example, ideation is the third, middle stage. So, if a team declares it has a solution before taking the time to understand the users thoroughly and define the problem accurately, it will have lost its way in the mists of fixation.

© Yu Siang and Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0

How to Prevent the Einstellung Effect

Here are vital ways to safeguard your ideation efforts:

  • Stay aware that you may not be aware – Know your enemy, who is the trickster of a mindset that might offer fantastic-looking ideas and trap your ideation efforts inside a tiny “box”. So, if you hear “Hey! What about this…?” consider that someone may have jumped to an Einstellung-framed conclusion.

  • Have a Diverse Group of Team-mates – As expertise can work against creativity, having a range of backgrounds on board can help keep everyone from stumbling down wrong avenues.

  • Don’t overcomplicate the Straightforward; don’t oversimplify the Complex – Of course, design problems are typically intricate, but that doesn’t mean every factor will be. Everything pivots on the wording of the problem statement. One wrong word can result in anchoring and a skewed view of what users might really want from a solution.

  • Use Design Thinking – This process is custom-built for finding solutions that need to be custom-built. From the empathize and define stages, you can craft a solid, fine-tuned and inspiring problem statement, and move on to ideation armed with the criteria for evaluating competing ideas.

  • Complement Divergent Thinking with Convergent Thinking – To flex the creative muscles and then carefully process harvested ideas. For example, methods such as bad ideas help empty the mind of preconceptions and leverage lateral thinking.

  • Believe in the Power of Incubation – After all the dust thrown up in ideation, step back and take a break. Just follow the stages of creativity and get some distance on the problem so you can return with a fresh view.

  • Beware of Fixation in Ideation Sessions – If patterns of approaching a problem start surfacing, team-mates may become stuck in a set way of evaluating other topics that arise. This can be hard to detect, so it helps to keep “Is this the best way of handling this?” in mind.

  • Remember, New Solutions demand New Approaches – And recycling old/popular approaches can happen without your realizing it. So, divergent thinking methods such as oxymorons can help push out beyond what’s already been done.

Overall, remember that although the subconscious mind accounts for a lot, you’re in control of which train of thought you board on the journey to the best solution every time.

© Yu Siang and Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0

Learn More about The Einstellung Effect

Take our Creativity course, addressing the effect.

Read some other points to consider here.

Design Thinking for Museums’ piece includes in-depth insights and remedies.

Exaptive’s blog offers helpful tips.

Read some further insights on the Einstellung effect, here.

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Literature on Einstellung Effect

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

Learn more about Einstellung Effect

Take a deep dive into Einstellung Effect 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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