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When we hear the term “cognitive bias,” it often suggests something negative that should be avoided. However, cognitive biases are vital tools that help us navigate our daily lives. In this article, we’ll explore what cognitive biases are and how they impact UX designers.

Cognitive biases are shortcuts our brains take that can be helpful but sometimes harmful. Under normal circumstances, our brains face an astronomical number of decisions. If we had to consciously make each of these decisions, we couldn’t function effectively. To cope, our brains process many cognitive activities (decisions, emotions, actions, behaviors) unconsciously. It’s believed that only 5% of our cognitive activity is conscious, while the remaining 95% occurs non-consciously. This 95% is where our cognitive biases come from. Simply put, cognitive biases are rules of thumb that our brain has created to simplify decision-making. In this article, we’ll focus on three specific cognitive biases and how UX designers can utilize them to create better more helpful designs.

Making Taxes Less Taxing

One powerful tool that cognitive biases provide UX designers is called cognitive fluency. Cognitive fluency refers to a user’s subjective experience of how easy or difficult it is to process and complete a mental task. In other words, if something is easy to read, your brain tells you it’s easy to do; if something is hard to read, your brain tells you it’s hard to do.

A clear example of cognitive fluency in UX design can be seen in IRS forms. IRS forms tend to be overloaded with information and lack layout hierarchy or order. In contrast, online tax services like TurboTax use UX best practices to present the same information in a way that is easier for the brain to process. They separate content into easy-to-understand sections, dedicate a page to a single task at a time to prevent overwhelm, and include illustrations and informal, conversational phrasing. This approach makes doing taxes feel easier, increasing the likelihood that users will complete the task. Credit, where credit is due, the IRS UX team has done great work with the roll out of the Direct File pilot which brings UX best practices to a very outdated practice. We are looking forward to Direct File becoming the standard experience for citizens paying taxes.

The Jam Experiment

The second bias we need to consider is analysis paralysis. This occurs when overanalyzing or overthinking a situation leads to decision-making paralysis. For UX designers, this means that giving users too many choices can have a negative effect.

A study called “The Jam Experiment” illustrates this bias well. In this study, a grocery store conducted two tasting sessions. In one session, shoppers could sample 24 flavors of jam, while in the other session, they could sample only 6 flavors. Although the 24-sample session attracted more shoppers, the 6-sample session resulted in ten times more sales. This teaches UX designers to be mindful of how many choices we present to users. Limiting the calls to action (CTA) on a single page to the most important ones helps ensure that users can process what is being asked of them and decide.

If at First You Don’t Succeed…

Another cognitive bias UX designers frequently encounter is recency bias. This bias is the tendency to weigh recent events more heavily than earlier ones. In user experience terms, it means that people will consider something more important if it appears at the top of a page or is the first item on a list.

To utilize this bias, ensure that the order of your design elements reflects their true importance because that’s what users will perceive. Additionally, be mindful that recency does not impede users’ ability to choose.

Amazon’s approach to product reviews is a good example of addressing recency bias. Amazon used to display the latest reviews at the top, but they found people viewed the first review as the most important and trustworthy. To counteract this, Amazon introduced the concept of “helpfulness” by allowing users to vote on whether a review was helpful. Initially, users still assumed the top helpful review was definitive. Pivoting again, Amazon now displays the most helpful positive and critical reviews side by side at the top, ensuring that both perspectives are equally visible, allowing users to make informed decisions. This is a great example of evolving design based on user behavior.

UX designers create environments for decision-making. Cognitive biases can positively or negatively affect these environments. The best way to create positive user environments is to be aware of biases and use them responsibly. However, cognitive biases not only affect how users perceive our designs but also impact us as UX designers and our design process. In the second part of this article, we’ll discuss how cognitive biases affect the design process in both positive and negative ways and share practical tips to steer them towards the positive. Reach out if you’re interested in learning more about RIVA’s UX practice area.

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