Guest post by Amy Leak
How many times have you beat yourself up over a supposedly irrational decision you’ve made? Justifying that McDonald’s based on a workout session you did a week ago? Texting your ex when you’ve had one too many tequila shots?
Well you can now give yourself a break: thanks to cognitive bias, it turns out every single decision you will ever make is irrational. (So you can forget about those ones I just listed above for a start).
What is Cognitive Bias?
Cognitive biases are the mental shortcuts that deviate us from rationality and best judgement to aid our decisions. Without cognitive bias, by the time we’d actually assessed every possibility involved in making a decision, the opportunity from which that decision depended upon would become obsolete. Basically, without irrationality we would be paralysed.
On average, we make 35,000 decisions a day, so our cognitive biases are working pretty hard daily. Ultimately, our cognitive biases help us to counteract problems experienced whereby we are overwhelmed by breadth of information, need to fill in the gaps or are required to make a quick decision, all by deciphering what the most important and useful bits to do so are.
Read Buster Benson’s fantastic article ‘Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet’ to see how he has grouped and eliminated duplicates of Wikipedia’s some 175 cognitive biases and attributed them to four problems commonly experienced. It will blow your mind.
In this post, I’ve picked two interesting cognitive biases to talk through in more detail:
Cognitive Bias 1: Attentional Bias
Have you ever walked up to the bar to see someone super hot next to you? You might return the following week, and there they are again. You might turn to your friend and say “That gorgeous man/woman only seems to be at the bar when we are.”
Up to now, every time you have entered the bar, you’ve seen them. What you would have failed to recognise are the other possible outcomes:
- There may be a time whereby they are at the bar and you are not.
- There may be a time whereby you are at the bar and they are not.
- There may be a time whereby neither of you are at the bar.
Attentional bias would have lead you to believe that there is only one outcome based on exposure to just one of four possible outcomes.
Right place, right time
It’s all about timing, guys. Arriving at the bar at the same time as a potential lover has graced you a preferred outcome. Stepping out of the bar and into the digital realm, considering where and how frequently you promote desirable routes and eliminate undesirable routes can work to the same effect.
A closed checkout removes main navigation from the interface to focus the user on progressing through their purchase journey. An availability form placed cannily beside a room specification enables the booking process. Guiding a user towards their activity statistics following completion of a workout video to show the pay-off incites more squats. All of these journeys consider context to optimise the right place, right time rule.
Remember your goals, keep your user flows focussed, remove distractions. Understanding context and timing gives you a firmer grasp of your users’ behaviour so you can get ready to strike with delicious opportunities. Remember, it’s up to you to guide your user towards finding love in your product. Because in a sea of options, sometimes we all need a little help from our Wingman.
Cognitive Bias 2: Risk Compensation
What is the scariest thing you have ever done? What made you feel safe about doing this scary thing? Did this affect your decision?
I’ve always wanted to go shark cage diving. However, I would never go into shark-infested waters willingly without a steel cage surrounding me. The cage makes me feel protected and so my risk of getting eaten alive is substantially reduced. Anyway, everyone knows sharks hate the taste of humans. That also makes me feel a little better about the situation.
Okay, maybe shark cage diving is a bit of an extreme example. When cycling with a helmet, you might pick up the pace a little more than if your head wasn’t protected. You might even take a risk and pick up a chicken tikka lasagne on your way home because you know if it’s awful, you’ve still got a shepherds pie at home. The lasagne could happen to be magnificent and then you’ve stumbled upon one of the greatest fusions of all time. The payoff makes taking that risk a little bit sweeter.
Adjusting behaviour based on perceived risk
When we come across a potentially unsafe situation, we weigh up the risk and adjust our actions in response to this identified risk. If we sense a greater risk we are likely to take more care whereas when we perceive signs of safety and protection we might reduce our inhibitions. This adjustable response to perceived danger based on the levels of safety detected is called Risk Compensation.
Back to the digital realm, how can we encourage our users to take greater risks that pay off online?
Make your users feel safe
Quite obviously, make your users feel safe. Create that steel cage that protects them. This could be in the form of logos from secure payment gateways along your checkout, use of reassuring and encouraging language, rolling payment subscriptions and offering accessible customer service. Safety creates trust.
Use progressive commitment
Trust is the deal-breaker that helps your customers to take the leap of faith, particularly when using a new product. So you’ve created a service that will help someone optimise a certain repeatable task, let’s say it’s an app that helps you easily organise your emails. You might ask: Is it worth it? Offering a free trial or limited version of the app first will reduce the risk threshold and ease the customer into commitments. It will also help the user to gradually build habitual behaviour around the app and integrate it into their lives until they feel ready to make the next commitment.
Make actions easily reversible
If we know we can undo an action easily, we’re more likely to try it. Just like you might fancy a new hairstyle, trying curling irons first before you get the chop is better. A poodle perm is better than a dodgy haircut. Google does this perfectly by making it possible to undo deleting an email as soon as you’ve done it because let’s be honest, we all make mistakes or change our mind. Make the undoable doable by ensuring actions are easily reversible or by clearly explaining and minimising the process involved in cancellations and returns. Many brands make it almost impossible to cancel subscriptions and memberships. This sort of dark design only threatens trust and makes the likelihood of becoming a returning customer less than likely.
Illustrate the pay off
What’s scary about doing something you feel entails risk? The unknown. Take away the unknown from the situation and show your customers the benefits they could experience. Using reviews, case studies and by simply providing information helps to illustrate the personal essence of your brand and the lifestyle it brings. Make the pay-off known to your customers to show your brand promise.
Life isn’t fun without taking a few risks every now and again. Encourage your customers to take that risk and create safety around their decisions will coax them towards that initial commitment. Remember to make your users feel safe, create micro-commitments, allow easy reversal and make the unknown known and you’ll get them taking the plunge in no time.
Next time: In Part Two, Amy gives us the lowdown on two more cognitive biases.
About Amy Leak
Amy is a UX Designer at BBC Sport, interested in the indispensable relationship between people and digital. Obsessed with fighting against and with cognitive bias, she currently has two very different series in progress ‘Bias in Dating’ and ‘Bias in Digital’. See more of Amy’s ramblings here: medium.com/@amyalexandraleak