9 Cognitive Biases in Conversation Design & How to Hack Them

Cognitive biases affect all humans, but their effect can be particularly pernicious on UX and Conversation Design. Here’s how you can hack them to your advantage.

According to its definition, cognitive bias is a structured way of thinking that arises from the human brain's inclination to streamline the handling of information by incorporating personal experiences and preferences. This filtering mechanism serves as a coping strategy, allowing the brain to efficiently manage and prioritize substantial amounts of information.

Meaning: it’s natural for all of us to be influenced by the bias we have developed.

While this is a fact of cognitive psychology, simply accepting one is affected by bias will not do for those whose work is creating experiences to support other humans, as in the case of Conversation Designers (and, equally, UX designers).

In this article, we provide a review of some of the most insidious cognitive biases, like halo effect, Ikea effect, and Dunning-Kruger effect, and suggest effective strategies to mitigate their two-fold impact, i.e. on users and on designers.

Would you rather sit back & learn about this topic watching videos? Check out our “Bias Hacking for Conversation Designers” YouTube series. Each video is around 4 min.

Understanding the two-fold impact of bias on design

Before we dive into the biases and the strategies to “hack” them, it's crucial to grasp why understanding cognitive biases is paramount for conversation designers, and how biases manifest in two distinct ways within our work.

The Nature of Cognitive Biases

First and foremost, it's imperative to recognize that no individual exists in a vacuum; biases naturally develop within us all. While "bias" often carries negative connotations, these cognitive shortcuts are, in fact, essential. Without them, our brains would grapple with the daunting task of processing every stimuli meticulously, potentially rendering even simple tasks, like ascending stairs, time-consuming affairs.

These shortcuts, forged from our experiences, facilitate swift interpretation and anticipation of situations. For instance, when faced with stairs, our minds instinctively calculate the necessary foot height and sequence. However, these shortcuts, rooted in assumptions, often become so ingrained that they operate on autopilot, rendering us oblivious to their influence. It takes compelling new information to challenge and prompt us to reevaluate these mental "laws."

Implications for Conversation Designers and Experience Designers

As experience and conversation designers, we navigate a unique position; not only do we harbor biases as humans, but we also construct interfaces intended to engage and assist other humans. This interaction ushers in biases in two distinct ways:

  • Biases guide us, sometimes clouding our own judgment, leading to assumptions;
  • Simultaneously, they influence end users, steering them towards often irrational shortcuts when making decisions or expressing themselves.

Mitigating Biases in Design

Awareness of one's biases is no small feat, given their stealthy integration into our perceptions. Nevertheless, as conversation designers, it's our duty to confront and scrutinize our own preconceptions. Embracing critiques when we struggle to unearth them ourselves is part and parcel of this responsibility. Furthermore, biases extend their reach to the end users we design for. Recognizing common cognitive biases among humans empowers conversation designers to craft interfaces that work harmoniously with these inherent tendencies.

Halo Effect

According to the Decision Lab, halo effect is a cognitive bias that asserts that positive impressions formed about individuals, brands, or products in one context tend to spill over and positively influence our perceptions in other contexts. It's like casting a radiant halo over them due to certain external attributes. This luminous aura may lead us to overestimate the value of these entities.

Mitigating the impact of halo effect on the designer starts from prioritizing research, as it helps unearth our own biases and empowers us to make more informed decisions. Equally, being mindful about the way you present and package your ideas can help you bring your point across more effectively.

In turn, understanding how halo effect influences user experience is pivotal for conversation designers. Halo effect teaches us that the success of a chatbot hinges on its surrounding context. A poorly designed UI may deter users from engaging with the bot or even noticing its presence.

At the same time, it’s important to remember your bot's persona is an extension of your brand. When shaping its voice, contemplate whether it aligns with the positive associations customers have with your brand.

IKEA Effect

Named after the beloved Swedish furniture giant, the IKEA effect sheds light on how individuals tend to place higher value on objects they've had a hand in creating. More broadly, it underscores the human tendency to favor things we've put effort into. This concept extends beyond furniture assembly, influencing businesses like Build-a-Bear, Nike, and Hello Fresh.

To try to control the impact IKEA effect has on you as a designer, begin by distancing yourself from your creation and consider engaging individuals less emotionally invested in the project for feedback. The IKEA Effect can skew our perception of our work, potentially leading to overconfidence. Seek input from colleagues, project managers, or impartial parties to gain valuable perspectives.

On the other hand, knowing your users can perceive something more favorably, if they feel like they’ve been involved in it, allows you to leverage the IKEA effect in your designs. 

For example, you could try to engage users in the process making them feel like they’re actively contributing to create something with the bot. This can be especially useful in cases of extended interactions. However, customization should enhance the experience, focusing on elements that hold genuine importance for the user.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect reveals the tendency for individuals with limited expertise in a specific domain to overestimate their proficiency. Conversely, those truly proficient in the area may wrongly assume that the task is just as straightforward for everyone else. This creates a Catch-22 situation, where those less knowledgeable are unable to identify their own shortcomings, leading them to believe they excel. Meanwhile, experts, who find their work second nature, struggle to perceive the challenges faced by others.

The tricky thing about mitigating the Dunning-Kruger Effect in the design process is that you have to keep in mind that you might be addressing experts in your domain (who don’t know they’re experts), as well as novices (who don’t know their novices).

Research is your best friend to resist the effect of Dunning-Kruger, as it can instruct you on what is common knowledge for your audience. This insight will help ensure the interface effectively caters to their needs while providing necessary context for less experienced users.

Similarly, remember that your users might also have a skewed perception of their skill level.

Try to provide opportunities for users to demonstrate their familiarity with a subject rather than relying solely on self-assessment. For instance, introduce domain-specific terms and offer explanations upon request.

Mere Exposure, Choice Overload, Anchoring Bias, Observer Expectancy, Decoy, and Loss Aversion

There are so many different kinds of biases that influence designers and users of an interface. Halo effect, IKEA effect, Dunning-Kruger effect, but also Mere exposure effect, Choice overload, Anchoring bias, Observer Expectancy effect, Decoy effect, and Loss aversion: these are some of the most pernicious ones.

To help you think about how to design around them, we’ve put together a YouTube series called “Bias Hacking for Conversation Designers”:

Each video is around 4 minutes long and it breaks down one of these 9 cognitive biases, and provides you with our favorite strategies to manage them proactively.

Of course, getting rid of biases isn’t possible (and, in some cases, it might not even be desirable), but taking the time to become aware of them and elaborate strategies to keep yourself in check can truly make an impact on your work.

Inspired to explore what conversational AI can do for your company? We can help.

Feel free to spill out all your conversational needs and ideas via voice message or good old email.

And if you’re still hungry for knowledge, follow us on LinkedIn for weekly updates on the world of conversational AI, or check out our article busting the 5 most popular myths on persona, personalization, and proactiveness.

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