Cognitive biases in UX

Learn how to create more effective and user-friendly products by recognizing and addressing cognitive biases in UX design and research.

Research
Cognitive biases in UX

It’s comforting to think that we approach the UX design and research process with an open mind, free from the influence of our own preferences or personal beliefs. But as objective as we aim to be, it’s difficult not to let our work be guided by assumptions, preconceptions, and other internalized thought patterns.

Recognizing and addressing cognitive biases can help minimize these negative effects, resulting in end products that are more aligned with the actual needs of users.

In this article, we explore the concept of cognitive biases in UX, and how being aware of and addressing them can lead to better products. Get ready to uncover the hidden biases that may be affecting your UX design and research projects, and learn how to mitigate their negative influences for more effective and user-friendly products. 

What are cognitive biases?

Simply put, cognitive biases explain the thought patterns that may influence our decision making or perceptions. As a science, cognitive psychology came into prominence in the 1950s and 1960s, with researchers exploring what causes people to make subjective choices. In the 1970s, psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Hahneman took this work even further, formally defining the concept of cognitive biases and the different forms it can take.

Cognitive biases in UX can affect both those involved in the design and research process as well end users. Without even knowing it, designers can favor certain choices regardless of whether they benefit the target audience. And users opening an app or landing on a website’s homepage will also make judgements based on their own internalized biases. 

Being responsible for creating usable designs and positive experiences, we need to be aware of cognitive biases in order to keep our minds open throughout the design process and make choices based on facts rather than feelings.

Now that we’ve covered the concept of cognitive biases, let’s take a look at several different forms they can take in influencing the UX design and UX research process. 

Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is when we favor information that lines up with our own beliefs or understanding and ignore that which doesn’t. It keeps us wrapped up in the comfort of familiarity and can make it difficult to acknowledge and recognize the value of outside perspectives. 

How does confirmation bias impact UX?

Confirmation bias often leads to decisions based on emotions. It’s easy to get caught up in a design that has features and visuals that align with our personal tastes and forget the needs of the people who will be using it. When we’re too enamored with our work we might also dismiss negative feedback and legitimate concerns that can come up. 

Confirmation bias can also come into play during user testing. For example, when we create a prototype, confirmation bias can fill our heads with assumptions and conclusions about its functionality and user experience. We might ask leading questions to test participants, guiding them to the answers we want to hear. 

Confirmation bias can also factor into how we analyze test results, causing us to interpret data and feedback only in ways that support our preconceptions. 

A Venn diagram illustrating confirmation bias in UX - one circle shows 'what you think', a second circle shows 'what the user thinks', and the overlap in the middle is the confirmation bias.

Anchoring bias

Anchoring bias involves first impressions. Whatever we see first (the “anchor”) tends to have a big influence on what we think and on the actions we decide to take, even when other information becomes available. 

How does the anchoring bias impact UX?

Anchoring bias can lead to unforeseen consequences, but it can also be used intentionally to guide visitors to positive outcomes.

For example, anchoring can be used at the beginning of a design to effectively convey a significant marketing message, call to action, or information about a product. By placing key information upfront, it can prime users motivations, directing them toward the desired actions or conversions you want them to take. 

A screenshot of the Amazon homepage

Amazon puts anchoring bias into action the moment you land on their website. There are three distinct blocks that grab your attention. The first two, ‘Pick up where you left off’ and ‘Keep shopping for,’ are based on the recent items you searched for, and the third box contains products you’ve already purchased, prompting you to ‘Buy again.’ Right at the top of the page, you're shown items that interested you in the past and are steered toward these products again, with the hopes that you’ll add them to your cart and make a purchase.

While anchoring can have a huge impact when used strategically in a design, it can have negative consequences when visitors are drawn to less important messaging and actions. Imagine if Amazon had random products on their homepage, unrelated to anything you’ve searched for before. Without these reminders about previous product searches or purchases, it's likely you’d forget all about them.

Availability heuristic 

The availability heuristic, sometimes  known as availability bias, refers to split decision making based on readily available content, rather than seeking out more comprehensive or accurate information.

How does the availability heuristic impact UX?

The availability heuristic can lead us to make decisions that aren’t well thought through. For example, we might go with specific UI design elements or a website layout because it’s what our competitors are using. Or we might choose that trendy typeface or design style that seems to be everywhere without thinking whether it will look out of date in the future.

Another consequence of the availability heuristic is that we can become consumed with features like flashy design elements. They might look good, but do they serve a purpose? We can end up unwittingly deprioritizing features or elements that are more important to the user experience and the goals we want visitors to reach. 

Framing effect

The framing effect is a cognitive bias where people’s decisions or judgments are influenced by the way information is presented or “framed,” rather than the actual content of the information. 

For example, if information is presented in a positive frame, highlighting the benefits or gains, we’re more likely to perceive it favorably and make decisions based on the potential positive outcomes. On the other hand, if the same information is presented in a negative frame, focusing on the risks or losses, we may perceive it negatively and make different decisions based on the potential negative consequences.

How does the framing effect impact UX?

It is important to be aware of the framing effect in UX design and research, as it can impact how users perceive and respond to information presented in different ways. The way information is framed, including the visual aspects of design such as typefaces, color palettes, graphics, and other design elements, can greatly influence how users perceive and interpret the messaging of a brand. Different visual elements can evoke different emotions, associations, and meanings, which can shape users’ perception of the brand and its messaging.

For example, if you want to convey a sense of trustworthiness and professionalism, you might choose a typeface, color palette, and graphics that are clean, simple, and sophisticated. This framing can evoke a sense of credibility and reliability that aligns with the desired brand image. On the other hand, a brand that wants to convey playfulness and creativity might choose a typeface, color palette, and graphics that are more whimsical and fun, which can evoke a different emotional response and shape user’ perception of the brand.

A screenshot of the Apple homepage

The Apple website, for example, echoes the sleek, minimalist sophistication of its products. This is an excellent example of framing, with a design aesthetic featuring a modern sans-serif typeface, ample negative space, and clean product photography. Apple’s marketing message is framed in a way that aligns with its brand identity, resonating with our preconceived notions and expectations of the brand. 

Hick’s law

Hick’s law, also known as the Hick-Hyman law, is a cognitive principle that states that the time it takes for a person to make a decision increases with the number of options or choices presented to them. It’s named after psychologists William Edmund Hick and Ray Hyman who first proposed it in their research on human decision-making and information processing.

As far as usability is concerned, Hick’s law is one of the most important cognitive biases to be aware of. By considering Hick’s law in UX and reducing the number of choices available, you can create interfaces that are more intuitive, efficient, and user friendly.

How does Hick’s law impact UX?

Users should be able to complete their desired tasks with minimal steps. This can be achieved by  simplifying information architecture, UI elements, and navigational components to streamline the user flow and make it easy to move through them.

A screenshot of the Fender homepage

Fender is a guitar manufacturer with a number of different product lines covering electric, acoustic, bass guitars, and more. Their website includes a simple navigation structure, with the major instrument categories and a drop-down that displays the instrument sub-categories. This design could have been overwhelmed with many product links, but Fender has opted for a simplified UI that makes it easy to find what you’re looking for. 

False consensus effect

False consensus is the tendency to assume that others share the same values, perceptions, and behaviors as ourselves. This bias can impact decision-making, as it may lead to the assumption that others will think, feel, or behave in the same way as we do, without considering alternative perspectives or data. 

In UX design, false consensus bias can lead to biased assumptions about user preferences, resulting in design choices that may not accurately reflect the diverse needs and preferences of target users.

How does the false consensus effect impact UX? 

Much like confirmation bias, false consensus creates a perception that everyone will see and experience things in the same way as we do.

The false consensus bias can affect UX in several ways:

  • Assumptions about user preferences: You might assume that your preferences, behaviors, and attitudes are representative of the larger user population, which can lead to biased assumptions about what users want or need.
  • Biased design decisions: You might make design decisions based on your own beliefs or opinions, assuming they are widely shared.
  • Limited consideration of other perspectives: This can lead to design choices that don’t consider the needs or preferences of underrepresented user groups, resulting in a lack of inclusivity and accessibility.
  • Lack of data-driven decision making: Relying on gut feelings rather than data-driven insights can result in design choices that aren’t based on objective feedback, leading to less effective design outcomes.

The bandwagon effect

The bandwagon effect, as the name suggests, is a cognitive bias that leads us to adopt or embrace things simply because they’re popular or trendy. This bias can be observed in design trends such as skeuomorphism in the 1990s with its faux realism, glossy buttons in the 2000s, and the Corporate Memphis illustration style associated with Big Tech companies in the late 2010s. 

While these design techniques may not be inherently flawed, the originality and uniqueness that make them interesting can be diluted when we begin seeing them everywhere.

A Corporate Memphis style illustration showing three people and the Facebook thumbs down symbol
An example of the Corporate Memphis illustration style

How does the bandwagon effect impact UX?

Doing what’s trendy can have major drawbacks when it comes to making your work stand out, as well as filling the screen with features that your target audience doesn’t need. It’s worth paying attention to the bandwagon effect and designing with intent, rather than making choices based on what’s popular.

How to use cognitive biases to improve UX

Recognizing cognitive biases in UX can help you analyze whether your choices are influenced by unconscious influences. When you’re able to step outside of your own preconceptions, you can work toward serving your end users in a more objective way.

So many forms of cognitive biases prevent us from being aware of or open to ideas outside of our own thoughts and feelings. User testing is an essential way of identifying if our own cognitive biases are impeding the user experience, giving us the data we need to make informed decisions.

Some user testing methods that can lessen the influence of cognitive biases include:

  • Five second testing: Giving test participants just five seconds to engage with a design shows you exactly what catches their attention and can mitigate the influence of confirmation bias, or show you if availability bias is leaving users with a positive impression.
  • First click testing: Much like five second testing, first click testing gives users a short time frame to engage with a design. This is a great way to see if you’ve narrowed down options according to Hick’s law, as well as tell you if anchoring bias is having an influence.
  • Card sorting: Having test participants organize and structure information can reveal patterns outside conclusions you may have come to, and is a great way to check on confirmation bias. 

Addressing cognitive biases in your projects

Unconscious biases can strongly influence our decision-making and judgment. By being aware of cognitive biases in UX, we can make more informed choices and create products that are better aligned with the needs and motivations of our end users.

If you’re interested in addressing cognitive biases in your own design and research projects, UsabiilityHub offers remote unmoderated testing like card sorting, five second tests, first click tests, and prototyping tests that will give you feedback and data to make better informed decisions. Sign up for a free plan to try it out for yourself.

Frequently asked questions about cognitive biases in UX

What is cognitive bias in UX?

Cognitive bias in UX refers to the influence of subjective thought patterns and preconceived notions on the design and research process of products such as websites, apps, and interfaces. Cognitive biases are subconscious mental shortcuts that can impact decision making and perception, often leading to biased or irrational judgments.

What types of cognitive biases are there in UX?

Some common cognitive biases in UX include confirmation bias, anchoring bias, availability heuristic, and the framing effect. Confirmation bias is the tendency to favor information that aligns with our own beliefs or preferences and ignore contradictory information, which can lead to biased design decisions and dismissive attitudes towards feedback. Anchoring bias involves the first impression or initial information that users encounter, which can strongly influence their subsequent actions and decisions. The availability heuristic refers to decision making based on readily available information rather than seeking out more comprehensive or accurate data, which can result in superficial or trendy design choices. And the framing effect is the influence of how information is presented or framed on decision making, such as highlighting the positive aspects of a product or feature while downplaying the negative aspects.

Why is it important to address cognitive biases in UX?

Recognizing and addressing cognitive biases in UX is important for creating user-friendly and effective products. Being aware of these biases can help you approach your work with a more open mind, make decisions based on objective facts rather than personal preferences, and ensure that the needs of users are prioritized over internalized biases. 

What is an example of cognitive bias in UX?

An example of cognitive bias in UX is confirmation bias. This is a tendency for users to interpret, remember, or search for information in a way that confirms their existing beliefs or expectations, while ignoring or dismissing information that contradicts them. In UX, this bias can impact how users perceive and interact with a website or app, as they may only pay attention to information that supports their preconceived notions or beliefs.

Jeff Cardello is a freelance writer who loves all things tech and design. Outside of being a word nerd, he enjoys playing bass guitar, riding his bike long distances, and recently started learning about data science and how to code with Python.

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