:: By Paul Ralph, PhD ::
When you aim for a creative solution — not
simply an incremental improvement, but a
real innovation — you pick a fight with your
Vast arrays of systematic deviations
from optimal reasoning, which psychologists
call “cognitive biases,” conspire to
subvert your creativity. Here are six bias-infused
errors you may recognize.
1. It’s not my fault, it’s default...
Defaults matter. Just ask Facebook about default
privacy settings. But the tendency to choose the default
option, called default bias, goes far beyond
leaving the checkboxes checked. When you design,
you unconsciously accept myriad default patterns
you learned in school, at work or developed on
your own, without thinking about more creative,
appropriate solutions. How long were sites still
organized as hundreds of nested tables after better
approaches came along?
2. Thinking is what they made me do in school...
It’s no wonder today’s design looks strikingly similar
to last year’s portfolio. Creative thinking is hard work.
In fact, thinking is so enervating that we have evolved
a tendency to avoid all but the most superficial
cognition — a tendency called Miserly Information
Processing. MIP drives us simply to replicate our previous
ideas with minor tweaks, to provide only the
minimum number of acceptable mock-ups and to
take the client’s words as fact, even when we know
we should question the so-called “requirements.”
3. If this is the wagon, I want to fall off...
Today it’s parallax scrolling and icon fonts. Yesterday
it was frames and image maps. The design
arena is so saturated with fads that
discerning fundamental rules or patterns is
nearly impossible. That’s the bandwagon effect
— a kind of groupthink where the desire to
adopt something increases as our peers adopt
it. The problem is that the bandwagon effect
can lead us to apply our shiny new toy to inappropriate
situations and to overestimate
the silver bullet-ness of new technology.
4. One step forward, three steps back, invent jetpack...
Great designers pour their emotions, their egos and
their very identities into their work. Designers are invested,
and when you get invested in a decision, reversing
it feels terrible. This inconceivability of
revisiting previous decisions leads to design fixation,
“a blind adherence to a set of ideas or concepts limiting
the output of conceptual design,” according to a
Design Studies paper out of Texas A&M. Innovation
demands willingness to revisit, change or abandon
every aspect of the design. Creativity demands that
we question exactly those principles, technologies
and approaches that are most sacrosanct.
5. Weaknesses? What weaknesses?
When you look at a website, you do not see every
pixel equally. Your attention is drawn to one area or
another based on both the site’s design and your purpose
in viewing it. So it is with life in general. We perceive
reality selectively, attending to some things more
than others. The issue is that we pay more attention
to things that support our ideas, values and beliefs
than things that refute them. This Confirmation Bias
obscures the weaknesses of our designs to our own
eyes and hinders critical reflection.
6. If it ain’t broke...
When Facebook (a free site, in case we have all forgotten)
moves something, anything, even from one side of
the window to another, the outcry is overwhelming,
seemingly regardless of the functional or aesthetic implications
of the adjustment. People tend to irrationally
prefer and defend the status quo — an entwined pair
of phenomena known as status quo bias and system
justification. These biases not only underpin users’ irrational
resistance to change, but also explain designers’
unthinking replication of similar interface patterns.
Why, for instance, are we still storing “files” in "folders,"
or more fundamentally, data in tables?
The worst of it is that these biases act collectively to
shut down our creative and critical thinking. We end
up solving the wrong problem using popular, but ineffective,
approaches, ignoring or downplaying faults
and then replicating the same toxic patterns in the
next project. Fortunately, software engineering researchers
are developing a host of simple practices for
de-biasing designers, but that’s another list.
About the Author: Paul Ralph, PhD, is a lecturer in Design Science at the Lancaster University Management School and director at the Lancaster University Design Practices Lab.