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Watch your design blind spots

Like all human beings, we are inherently biased and most of us don’t even realise how this affects our design work. In this post I will help you find out how to identify and avoid these blind spots.

What is a mental “blind spot”?

Mental blindspot is a term referring to something that prevents us from “seeing” things clearly, which leads to making suboptimal decisions.

We all have blindspots. In case of product design, the more time you spend on a piece of work, the more invested you become in its creation and evolution. Over time you get to know a product or service so well, that you begin to make decisions using mental shortcuts because you “feel” like you know the product, the audience, the problem.

It’s about what you don’t notice

Our errors in thinking are typically attributed to a single cause or bias. However, it’s very rare we are affected by just one thing at one time. Broadly speaking, we’re subject to a multitude of factors at any given time and we use heuristics to reach simpler conclusions quicker. We’re primed to function like that, and we’ve developed ways to systematise and label our thoughts and feelings in descriptive enough ways to understand and reflect on.

What we keep forgetting about, is that we can use the same systems to actively de-bias ourselves. It takes deliberate practice and self-awareness to develop habits required to do this effectively. In product design this is crucial because we almost never design for ourselves.

How to tell you’ve developed a blind spot?

There’s a simple heuristic I like to use for determining whether I’m becoming biased. I go back to the last problem I was tasked with solving and think of my methodology and attitude.

  • How many questions have I asked or thought of asking?
  • How meaningful were those questions?
  • How interested was I in the problem?
  • Have I used any obvious mental shortcuts to bypass thinking?
  • Have I really given the problem the right amount of attention?
  • Have I consulted any research or data to validate my options?

In general, when you begin to run out of meaningful questions to ask or ignoring hard evidence, it can mean one of three things:

  1. You’ve exhausted the topic.
  2. You’ve stopped being interested in the topic.
  3. You’ve become biased and run on autopilot.

Given that number one is realistically impossible to achieve as almost all projects are resource-constrained, it’s down to number two and three to determine what’s going on in your mind.

Once you rule out boredom as the cause, what most likely prevents you from delivering your best is a mental blind spot.

How to deal with blindspots in design?

It takes a long time of practicing self-awareness and being accountable to yourself before you can start to subconsciously de-bias yourself. You have to train yourself in certain techniques and keep practicing them until they become second-nature, a habit.

However, there are a few things you can do to reduce the impact of your blind spots when designing for others.

Call for an outsider’s perspective

Ask for a professional opinion one of your peers who isn’t directly involved or oversee the same project, but does a similar function to yours. That’s probably the easiest one and can be incredibly powerful, depending on how well you can keep your ego in check.

Medical doctors frequently consult with other doctors to make sure they stay accountable and haven’t missed something important. Bring someone from outside the team to dispel the notion of in-group bias and keep yourself and your team in check.

Test with your target audience

Through appropriate testing with the intended audience you should be able to determine how well your solution works for them. Be keen to observe reactions, avoid leading testers and ask follow up questions to help narrow down the nuances, which could make or break the experience.

What testing can reveal is not just how well your solution works in the wild, but also whether you’ve made any assumptions about a given use case.

Take some time off

This may sound counterintuitive, after all we are on busy delivery schedules and can’t afford to miss set deadlines. However, sometimes you need to take a break, and it doesn’t have to be a total absence from design either.

While swapping with a designer from another team within the same company may be out of the question, you could possibly negotiate a pairing exercise on someone else’s project by playing the “knowledge and experience transfer card.”

De-biasing design is a difficult process that relies heavily on self-awareness, but as you’ve seen, there are ways to help validate our thinking. While not perfect, using these methods is likely to result in better, more thoughtful and more complete solutions.

Do you know of any other de-biasing techniques that are helpful when designing digital products? I’m keen to find out more about them, so feel free to hit me up on Twitter, @matthewmorek.