Understanding user bias

  • By
    Rana Mansour
    January 16, 2023
    January 17, 2023

Biases that our end-users may have & how this may affect our research or the way our outcome is perceived.

Present bias

Present bias is defined as the tendency to settle for a smaller reward than to wait for a larger one in the future, in a trade-off situation. In other words, users prefer an immediate benefit over the long-term — despite understanding that the instant benefit may be smaller than the long-term one. Earlier on, we published an article in which we spoke about instant gratification. In this research, we frequently observed how users didn’t like loyalty programs where points accumulate over a long time. These users preferred programs where they could ‘redeem now’ or have ‘instant offers’ available to them.  And it’s not just the millennials who appear to want quick gains, it’s anyone and everyone, and they want it now. One of the main reasons for this is the availability of choice. Since there are so many options, there is very little brand loyalty hence consumers don’t know if they will stick with the same brand long term.

What can we do as designers?

When solving problems around user engagement and loyalty, don’t offer long-term benefits. Immediate gratification applies not only to engagement and loyalty programs but also to app & website development. In a ‘time is money’ world, users now have little or no patience to search for items and products they want on apps & websites. It is up to the designer to make the navigation clear and bring important tasks up front to see conversion rates increase.

Perceptual salience

Perceptual salience is the fact that individuals are likely to focus on prominent information and ignore those that are not. It means users tend to focus on objects that are visually prominent and emotionally striking. It’s not a new concept, but it’s something designers need to remember. We know how easy it is to manipulate a user’s online behaviour by adding bright buttons or bold text – so don’t stop designing with this in mind. It is also important to remember that something unique has a better recall value, so make your design stand out from the stock standard web page or app.  

What can we do as designers?

As designers, it’s up to us to create designs that add uniqueness to the product so that consumers can recall it compared to competitors. It’s important to remember that perceptual salience does not equal customer retention. There’s nothing that can replace a great user experience. From the interface side, know the type of content that needs attention and highlight that within the design. Basic rules like bold text, bigger font, background, use of icons, and brighter colours are good tools that help designs stand out.

Ikea Effect

The Ikea effect is a cognitive bias in which consumers place a disproportionately high value on products they partially created. This is a relatively new bias where customers seem to like products they had a hand in making. But why are people happier about their self-assembled furniture from Ikea over pre-assembled furniture from premium brands? Because we love what we create. Consumers get positive feelings when completing a task. 

What can we do as designers?

If we know that labour leads to love and co-creation brings a distinct attachment to the product, we can better engage users by allowing them to help create content on the website/product we are designing. Not only will this provide users with a sense of owning the solution, but it will also lead to increased customer satisfaction which can drive retention rates.  As designers, we can leverage the following to work the Ikea effect to our advantage.

  1. Crowdsourcing to help generate ideas
  2. An ‘alpha release’ or ‘soft launch’ to get feedback from a group of users to be used for later design iterations
  3. Participatory design is where various teams ideate together and representatives of various user groups join in.

Courtesy bias

It’s the tendency for some individuals not to fully state their unhappiness with a service or product because they don’t want to offend the person or organisation they are responding to.

While this bias can help avoid confrontational situations, it poses problems for researchers to collect true & accurate feedback. This bias gets more prominent with participants from cultures with a high-power distance. As Hofstede writes, “cultures high in power distance tend to be more authoritarian societies where conformity is stressed, and submissiveness is common” (2001). In simple terms, when we speak to participants from countries like the UK where people believe in equality, they are more vocal about their thoughts on a product or experience. On the contrary, when we speak to participants from India or UAE, they tend to be less vocal about the issues.

What can we do as researchers?

There are two ways to correct this bias: 

  1. Observe instead of interrogating. Where possible, don’t draw conclusions based on what you hear from your participants. They might have pleased you by being polite. The best way is to observe participants perform the tasks using your product. In our lab a few months ago, we had a participant who told us the app was good and easy to use. However, in reality, he couldn’t complete any task using the app! Luckily we had our emotional tracker on, and it clearly showed his discomfort all through the task simulation
  2. Represent your users and not the business. It’s helped us a lot as researchers to put a neutral stance in front of our participants. We often say we have nothing to do with the design or the brand. The resulting feedback received is remarkably honest. Of course, running tests in our lab instead of at the client's office has been a great help too.

Groupthink

Groupthink refers to a psychological phenomenon in which people strive for consensus within a group, which could result in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. Unfortunately, this bias is quite popular and often participants in a group setting find themselves conforming to others' opinions to facilitate harmony. This bias carries similarities quite close to the bandwagon effect but, it’s important to talk about it from a research participants’ perspective.

Groupthink discourages creativity and individuality from research participants leading to repetitive and skewed results. These results could encourage companies to launch a feature or product that in reality won’t be used by the majority of users.

Again, bringing in a bit of discussion about cultural nuances and Hofstede's theory, people from collectivist cultures like the UAE prefer to conform to the group norm whereas people from individualist cultures like the UK would tend to present their thoughts and feelings. 

What can we do as researchers?

We often choose focus groups over personal interviews to save time or budget. As participant recruiters, we must pick people who are similarly vocal, belong to a similar socio-economic class and have a similar background. When we mix participants from different backgrounds, the louder or more vocal participants drive the discussion while the rest agree to maintain consensus. Screening participants is just as crucial as conducting the study — so be prepared to sift and sort through potential participants.

In conclusion

These five types of user biases have a direct impact on the outcome and results of various design and research activities. Keep these in mind when conducting research studies to unearth reliable findings. As a designer and researcher, you want to understand the motivations behind why users want and how they act with a product or app. Knowing that these biases exist for users can help keep you on the right track. 

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