In UX, Subtract Yourself From The Equation! (Plus Two Tools To Shake Off Bias)

When was the last time you heard something like the following quote from a fellow UXer or UI designer: “Let’s use this one, I like it better than the others”.

They may have just made the worst – and sadly also the most common – mistake in the entire domain of user experience: they’ve argued from their own instead of arguing from the user’s point of view. Let me share some valuable professional insight with you, and equip you with two tools that will help you make more informed decisions in your day to day work.


In every chapter of life, there’s one lesson which stands out. A lesson which you not only learn but internalize so deeply, that it becomes part of your personality, part of your approach to approaching things. The single most important lesson I learnt from my studies in marketing, communications & design was to subtract myself from the equation. In my day-to-day work as a UXer, it helps me avoid the most hazardous threat to building engaging user experiences: personal bias.

An Analog UX Story

This was one of those circumstances where personal bias prevented the solution of the problem…

One of my Berlin client’s companies resides in a beautiful, grand old red brick house. Since there are many companies operating in the building, a lot of people pass by the entrance everyday, and some used to stand in front of the building smoking cigarettes (yes, smoking is still pretty commonplace in Berlin, Germany). The owner wants everything to be nice & tidy, so the janitor put up a sign at the entrance saying “Please smoke in the courtyard”. When he saw people disobeying the rule, he yelled at them, but with no long-lasting effect. Then the owner urged the security company which is looking after the house to tell people more frequently to stop smoking in front of the entrance. Still, the habit thrived.

They would have acted accordingly. The others were just plain misbehaving.”

Neither the owner nor the janitor (both non-smokers), let alone the security personnel, ever tried to put themselves into the position of the smokers. Yet, they all figured they could alter the people’s behavior. Why? Because they would have acted accordingly. The others were just plain misbehaving. Or so they thought. After incidentally observing them while leaving the house for smoking & returning each time I visited my client, I was quick to find out the reason for their behavior:
They would have had to walk all the way through the gateway on the side of the building to get to the courtyard, because the back door of the hall – the one to the courtyard – was permanently locked, while the front entrance remained open. Short on time for breaks, they did what was most convenient. Their biggest problem in obeying the rule was a solvable one.
Ever since the janitor opened up the back door during business hours, and installed ashtrays in the courtyard, the smokers do as they are told and feel much better about it (which, in my opinion, they should not until they stop smoking, but to each his own).

“Bad UX decisions can make people leave you for another service, in no time.”

The moral of the story is a classic in UX: if the owner or the janitor would have assumed the perspective of the smokers, they would have solved the problem much easier and earlier. Now, in this story, there might not have been any business armageddons to fear, but when you design a product for a certain group of people, bad UX decisions can cost your conversion, break your brand or make people leave you for another service, in no time. I want to make a case for the benefits of constantly being aware of our own bias, followed by two tools that might help you in your work as a UXer or an entrepreneur. But first let’s find out about the most common bias about bias.

Feeling Bias-Free? Let’s Check!

Go ahead, test yourself, right now! Try to look at a piece of desktop software, mobile app or website, at a brand or some communication that you have seen recently. Look at it for a minute, let it sink in, and then come back to this article. See you in a minute!

Welcome back! What did you feel? What was your experience? Were you moved, did it entertain you, disgusted by bad design, how did you like the product, the color palette?
What you were just experiencing was a mixture of rational, professional observations and personal, subjective emotions. If you don’t believe me, try the same test with other professional UXers, and after the minute is over, ask them two questions: “Why will it work well/not work well?”, and “How did you like it?”. You’ll find that even two professionals of similarly high competence will differ in their observations as well as their judgements.

It’s in you, as it is in me. We all have it, lurking inside of us as part of our nature of being humans. However hard we try, however rational we seek to be, we cannot shut subjectivity down. Not completely, at least. Believing that you are free from bias is basically the most biased thing you can do.

Why Is This So Important?

Let’s look at what’s behind the buzzword UX (≠ UI design). The User Experience encompasses all of the preferences, perceptions and responses a user has when interacting with your company communication, brand, and – last but definitely not least – your product. Product-wise, if we take a look into IBMs now retro-futuristic design guidelines  which amazingly still provide guidance & perspective in 2013, you find this marvelous quote:

“When humans interact with computers, they bring to the encounter a lifetime of experience.” (IBM)

It’s true. And every UXer should be humble enough to acknowledge the fact that they cannot emulate the lifetime of experience of another person(a). That’s why we have to carefully and continuously observe our users and get our selves out of the way.

“But We’re Pros! Aren’t Our Opinions Our Bread And Butter?”

Yes, that’s true, but only to some extent. You have to conceive and pick the options to present to the user, because in the end, that’s your job. But actually,  people pay you for emulating the user, and building experiences that engage your users while fulfilling the companies’ business objectives. It doesn’t matter how insanely distant from your personal preferences those experiences are. That does not mean that you shouldn’t devote as much creative spirit to your projects as possible, but rather be aware of the difference between what is most suitably and what you like best. After all, there’s a fine difference between professional taste and your personal preferences.

“Your preferences don’t count.”

Think of your role as being the user you’re working on right now, but with professional UX capabilities. While you you design an app for cab drivers: be a designer. While you think about what to design: become a cab driver. In our domain, objectivity is a matter of survival. We do not live in a privileged reference frame. Your preferences don’t count.

So, you want to be as objective as possible. But how do you effectively decrease bias? Let me show you two methods that you can apply to your work.

Two Tools On The Path To Objectivity

1 Get into character: Who are the mastermind impersonators? Actors! When De Niro prepares for starring in a movie, he takes time to get into character. The toughest, but most fun & rewarding way to get into character is called Method Acting. This is a skill which takes years of practice to perfect, but you can start using today. For actors, it begins by finding out firsthand as much as they can about a character’s personality, mindset & situation, internalizing this information, then embodying the character. How can you transfer this method to your work around user experiences?

“You’ll be amazed how much there’s to gain from the first try.”

Exactly the way De Niro would do it: go where people are and observe them. Literally, I mean it! Leave your office and go where your users are! You might have read a lot about your customers, consulted experts, performed market research etc., but there is nothing as valuable as observing your users in real-life situations. When you’re done observing, put your observations to the test by embodying your user when you’re back in the lab. Remember the situations & challenges your users face in their everyday life, and predict how they will interact with your product. If you’ve never tried this before, you’ll be amazed how much there’s to gain from the first try – and it gets better each time you repeat it. To me, getting into character for Method Acting has become a healthy UX addiction.

2 Don’t ask wether users like your product: While you’re implementing your careful observations from the user’s perspective, you should of course frequently check back with them wether you’re on the right track or not. Lean, small-step iteration & validation, as introduced by Steve Blank and advanced by Eric Ries, most famously known for his Lean Startup book & movement, are not only more efficient than traditional R&D processes, but also more effective in terms of actual product outcome.

“Compared to your user, you know nothing about your user.”

The idea behind Blank’s Customer Development is basically to humble yourself, because compared to your user, you know nothing about your user. To counter this deficit, and make sure you deliver something which is actually valuable, you deeply integrate your user into your development process. While many companies already do this, most ignore the most important lesson: don’t ask wether users like your product. Or a feature. Or even an interaction. You’ll never hear the truth. Far better: Ask your users about their biggest problems in regard to your product. Let them try your solution and ask them about their biggest problems again. Ask why. The best thing about this method: not only will it make your users happy, it will turn them into advocates for your product.

New Mantra

Taste is important, preferences are poisonous. Preferences lead to irrational decisions. Irrational decisions lead to lost business. Let’s use our tools to cultivate an un-biased perspective in UX, and continue building exciting & engaging experiences.

Be like De Niro. Subtract yourself from the equation.

Photo by William Martins (Flickr CC)

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