Confirmation Bias: The True Value of Newcomer Eyes in User Research

If you have ever worked on a project over a long period of time, you have likely felt the phenomenon known as a confirmation bias. Confirmation bias, a term first coined by psychologist Peter Wason in a 1960 research paper, is generally defined as the tendency to seek out and analyze information in a way that aligns with preconceived notions.

For example, confirmation bias often impacts financial investors who have an affinity for an already existing brand. Because the individual enjoys the company’s products or services personally, he or she may ignore potential red flags about the company’s fiscal health and focus only on the positive information. As a result, the investor buys shares of the company based on what he or she believes is objective analysis, but is actually tainted.

Confirmation bias can also be a problem in any business project that involves usability testing. Let’s say, for example, that you have been working on a website redesign for two months. You conducted preliminary research before the project began by surveying a set of users about what they would like to see on your new home page.

When the new site goes live, you continue to survey users and monitor their behavior to determine if the redesign is having the desired effect. The majority of respondents give you a favorable view of the new site, but a significant percentage of them mention that it is more difficult to locate your contact information on the current home page than it was on the old site. You have spent so much time and effort on this project that your natural tendency might be to simply chalk those responses up to a period of adjustment for users and assume they will eventually get comfortable with the new look. But in taking this approach, can you be sure you are looking at the situation objectively?

In cases where the same individual or group has been glued to a long-term task, a fresh set of eyes can be extremely valuable. In fact, a Virginia Polytechnic Institute study found that adding a second person (known as an evaluator) to assess the design project results in as much as a 43 percent increase in problem detection and that similar gains will increase with each additional evaluator added.      

To that end, one of the most important ways we help our clients is by serving as a fresh set of eyes on their design and development projects. Our customers may call us in at any stage of their project to provide feedback on the design and flow of their design, a responsibility we never take lightly. As design consultants we often help our clients by identifying any blind spots our clients may have developed during the course of their project.

Another problem with confirmation bias is that a newcomer may notice or acknowledge a potential problem, so project owners may be reluctant to seek objective input. Project leaders should make every effort to be open-minded about soliciting fresh opinions. Remember that confirmation bias is not a weakness but rather a naturally occurring psychological phenomenon. In fact, acknowledging that this bias exists and taking steps to overcome it is a sign of strong leadership.

If you are about to embark on a new project or have hit a roadblock in one that is ongoing, seeking out a fresh perspective is always a good idea. We recommend that clients and prospects, even if they decide not to bring in help from outside their company, consider asking for opinions from employees within their organizations that are not directly involved with the task in question.

The ability to solve problems is one of the hallmarks of most successful businesses. But before you can begin to resolve difficulties, you have to identify and acknowledge them. And that is where the newcomer eyes can come in handy.

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