UX Corner

Cognitive Biases in Digital: Why users are irrational and how to design for it (Part 2)

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Guest post by Amy Leak

Last time, we spoke about what cognitive biases are, delved into how Attentional Bias and Risk Compensation work and how you can factor them into your digital design.

Today, we cover two more cognitive biases: the Empathy Gap and Choice-Supportive Bias.

Cognitive Bias 3: The Empathy Gap

Or, how can we help users consider Future-them?

You’ve just had your heart broken. And it bloody hurts. You constantly hear yourself whining “I’ll never love again!”. Actually, the odds are you will, but it’s difficult to empathise with an emotion you cannot currently feel.

When your heart has been broken, and you think about future relationships, you are biased by what we call ‘hot state’ emotions; sadness, anxiety and rage. This inability to make clear judgements based on the present is what we call the empathy gap.

Emotions come so naturally to us and for the most part, are uncontrollable. However, failing to accurately perceive future possibilities of your emotional and physical state because of living in the present can have detrimental effects. For example, you might have done the obligatory big food shop, but you’ve just eaten a taco. You’re in the world food aisle but you disregard the Mexican section— you’ve had enough guacamole to last you a lifetime. However, in a few days time, Future You might really fancy some fish tacos. What about Future You? You deserve your tacos.

Ultimately, there are three problems that can be experienced with an empathy gap:

1. Lacking self awareness

Much of the time, we do not realise we are being affected by our current preferences, feelings or behaviour. How can you make decisions for Future You if you are not aware of Right-Here-Right-Now You?

2. Judging long-term on short-term

By not thinking about Future You, you could be missing out on opportunities. When overcome by a hot state, it’s too easy to not see beyond.

3. Lacking empathy for others

When we feel a certain way, we can be biased towards how we feel when considering someone else’s unique situation.

Empathy is at the centre of all effective digital experiences. So, how can we fill the empathy gap to deliver consciousness to our users’ future selves and increase their awareness of others?

Mimic empathy with storytelling

Storytelling helps to assist our imagination. How many times have you felt so immersed in a book that you’ve created mental imagery, visualising characters, conversations and environments? Has this given you the ability to form deeper connections?

As a digital creator, think about how you can tell a story and cast your user as a character. Question how they feel. Invite them to take in their surroundings. Ask them to interact with other characters. Use imagery, movement and the written word to allude your users to the empathetic state you want them to experience. Take the recent This Girl Can campaign video. They invite you to ‘sweat like a pig’, hear the quickened pace of Her determined breath, witness the raw determination on Her face as she swipes a punchbag. Real exercise for real, relatable women. If you weren’t motivated before, you are now.

Perhaps you have noticed the overwhelming mass of drinks adverts that place a dehydrated figure into an uncomfortably hot environment, only to have their thirst quenched by a product covered in beads of condensation? It’s difficult for anyone to not feel a dry tongue after witnessing these adverts. Firstly, they give us self awareness. We might be thirsty but not realise it until presented with an extreme visualisation of our current needs. Secondly, it forces us to anticipate a future long-term situation whereby we may need to quench our thirst at a later stage. Thirdly, it creates an empathy for others because we experience the character’s journey from thirst to smug satisfaction.

Whether selling a product or service or promoting a cause, experiences must start and end with empathy. Storytelling is a powerful tool that allows us to explore the senses, attitudes and emotions that help us to close the gap and prompt more compassion within our users for themselves and others.

Cognitive Bias 4: Choice-Supportive Bias

Or, how we can subconsciously avoid regret

You’ve just been offered two different jobs. All of your close friends and family think this is great. In principle you agree, but it does give you an incredibly hard task to make a decision that will determine how you live your day-to-day for the foreseeable future. No pressure.

After much deliberation, you’ve made your decision. Life is good.

Over the next few days you think about your choice. You think about all the great aspects of your new job; the opportunities, the salary, the people, the workplace, the work bar. The other lesser offer that you didn’t accept also begins to cross your mind. You review the less impressive working environment, the cliquey boss, that offputting ‘vibe’ you got. You definitely made the right choice.

Our memories are selective to further affirm our choices and minimise regret. What we remember is arguably just as important as the decision itself as it determines how our memories are formed. Positive reflection of past decisions and negative associations with the attributes we didn’t choose are equally invaluable as we accredit all future decision-making to these recollections. This self-preserving thought process is called Choice-Supportive Bias.

Why do we do this? By nature, we are positive creatures. Instinctively, we work to maintain our wellbeing, clearing any self-doubt and optimising the present to secure a happy future.

Bringing this to a digital sphere, how can we validate consumer’s choices and affirm their competence in making the right decisions?

Reaffirm with success messages

Let’s face it, insecurity is a common vulnerability amongst us all to some degree. This is why we have developed cognitive mechanisms that help us to self-affirm every decision we make. Online, we can further reassure our customers by structuring encouraging confirmation messages. For example, if I have just purchased a LBD and I’m not sure it will suit my thunder thighs, I’d love to hear “Good choice. You’re going to look great!” However, I’m not going to downplay my doubts. A message that comforts my niggling insecurities will further instil confidence. “If you change your mind, take a look at our returns policy” helps me to relax by letting me know my options.

Repeatedly reaffirm

I’m going to reference another cognitive bias here; The Illusory Truth Effect. In short, we associate repetition with accuracy. The more you hear a piece of information, the more you believe in its validity. Use email order tracking as a platform to further harness those positive emotions from your customer’s decision by combining affirmation with frequency. “You’ve got great taste, Amy. Your order has been shipped and is on its way to you now!” Pays a cheeky compliment whilst simultaneously giving approval of a decision made by the customer. Avoid repetition of the same phrases but keep this concept intact throughout all of your email copy across delivery stages, for example.

Regret is a wasted emotion

It does help us to learn from mistakes of course, but the residual negativity it brings threatens our welfare. We should ensure decisions online can be easily reversed to avoid regret; transparency of returns policies and options are integral for this reason.

A little bit of a reassurance goes a long way to securing the self-preservation of our consumers online. Actively support your customers’ decisions and they will associate those positive memories with your brand. Because let’s be honest, we want to know we chose the right job and we want to know we’ll look jaw-dropping in that LBD (or LBS — little black suit, of course).

Want more lowdown on cognitive biases? Take a look at Part One

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

Design lead, watermelon addict, Leuchtterm notebook obsessive. I just enjoy designing great experiences for people that just work, writing about my craft and connecting with designers everywhere. Find me on Instagram, Twitter and Google+.

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