Breaking Cognitive Biases in Design Thinking through Empathy and Emotional Safety
Design Thinking is a process of developing products and services by understanding the people or organisations that would use it. It is a creative journey that is heavily reliant on empathy and course-corrective iterations. Fundamentally, it involves introspection and continuous data gathering that examines our ideas to ensure that they are developed through the lens of our target audience and not by what we believe to be right.
Human nature tends to gravitate towards the belief that, as individuals, we are rational and logical in the comprehension of our surroundings. Therefore, our thought process should inadvertently align with our clients’ requirements. However, our decision-making and problem-solving capabilities are often coloured by cognitive biases.
Cognitive biases shape the way we consume information. It can have a significant impact on decision-making and outcomes.
Cognitive biases at work
Cognitive biases refer to ‘shortcut’ techniques that our brain uses to rapidly make sense of information – an internal simplification process that sieves through the millions of external stimuli and arrives at a simplified, predictable conclusion in the event of perceived similarities between the current situation and our past experiences.
Biases offer us a sense of reassurance and a false sense of security that our inferences are infallible and therefore reliable. However, due to its cursory reliance on anecdotal evidence, cognitive biases often cause individuals to draw inaccurate conclusions of information and situations that can impede the integrity of the design thinking process. Its partial and often subjectively perceived success rate tends to reinforce stereotypes that can damage the creative process of product design.
Cognitive Biases refer to ‘shortcut’ techniques that our brain uses to process current information based on past experiences.
Due to its reliance on anecdotal evidence, biases can have high stakes impact on business and can result in incorrect prioritization of product roadmaps.
The ‘Anchoring Effect’ bias occurs when greater value is placed on information that is first receive and lower weightage is given to subsequent information- regardless of its true value.
For example, the ‘anchoring effect’ bias causes us to place greater value on information that we first receive and give lower weightage to subsequent information- regardless of its true worth. In the design context, this often arises among groups when brainstorming ideas where team leaders are inclined to proceed with ideas that they are presented with first. Upon hearing the first piece of information, due to the unconscious desire to arrive at a solution in the shortest amount of time, the anchoring effect biases us against information that follows the first. By ‘anchoring’ our thought process to the first idea, our design process begins to run on distorted and incomplete data.
Such biases, particularly in the corporate world, often stem from the organisational culture that tends to identify ‘failure’ as a reflection of the innate competency of an individual as opposed to evidence of learning. The faster a solution is arrived at, the lesser the likelihood of the perception of failure. This fear of failure tends to reinforce self-reliance on cognitive biases as a survival mechanism (Catalano et al, 2017). Consequently, innovation and progress get stifled and restrictive.
Psychological Safety and Empathy are crucial to maintaining a conducive culture of knowledge sharing and unlearning biases in the design thinking process.
Leveraging neuroscience at the workplace has been found to address inhibitors of design and growth (Becker et al, 2014). Psychological Safety and Empathy are crucial to maintaining a conducive culture of knowledge sharing and unlearning biases in the design thinking process such as the anchoring effect by building a team that ranks high on the empathy spectrum and by providing individuals with a safe space to create. For creativity to flow, both leaders and their teams are vital- psychological safety addresses managerial issues while empathy focuses on the individual- internal matters of contention pertaining to cognitive biases.
Psychological safety within teams, refers to the freedom to bring unique thoughts and perspectives to the table without the fear of being labelled, judged, or rejected.
Psychological safety within teams, refers to the freedom to bring unique thoughts and perspectives to the table without the fear of being labelled, judged, or rejected. It allows for creativity to flow more freely without the paralysing effect brought on by a fear-of-rejection approach. It enables individuals to bring their authentic selves to the workplace as well as hold space for their co-workers’ ideas and worldviews.
Psychological safety does not imply an environment where everyone operates on superficial agreeability all the time. On the contrary, it cultivates an ecosystem of openly sharing ideas and taking calculated risks in a manner that allows individuals, organisations, and products to reach their full potential. Mental security allows creative thinkers to safely navigate beyond the familiar waters of their biases and explore based on the insight that trust triggers an exploratory curiosity and open-mindedness to perspectives alternative to one’s own. A study by Catalyst found that out of 889 employees, 61% reported high innovation in their teams because their senior leaders operated with psychological safety and empathy. The numbers dropped to 13% in teams with less empathetic leaders.
Drawing from Maslow’s Needs Hierarchy theory, individuals are born with a need to fulfil a deep sense of belonging. The fulfilment of this need brings out traits that would have otherwise been veiled due to the fear of rejection.
Dr. Timothy Clark’s Four Stages of Psychological Safety
Psychological safety can be understood from the perspective offered by Dr. Timothy Clark who identified 4 stages of psychological safety. He opines that psychological safety occurs in phases.
- Inclusion Safety: At this stage, individuals begin to shed their initial fears and restrictive biases when they are included in the design and decision-making process.
- Learner Safety: Here, employees are allowed to safely ask questions and not be afraid of saying they need help in a particular area.
- Contributor Safety: Individuals are enabled to build confidence in their ability to offer meaningful contributions to their teams.
- Challenger Safety: the state that satisfies the need to make processes and products better. At this stage, people feel safe to respectfully speak up about areas of improvement and offer constructive feedback that would ultimately enhance innovation and quality delivery.
In reality however, it is possible for the trajectory of psychological safety to follow non-linear patterns and even have certain stages emerge in parallel based on the needs of the team and delivery requirements. All elements of psychological safety are required to achieve optimal design thinking capabilities.
Psychological safety can therefore be understood as an external tool provided by the organisation and its leadership to promote co-creation that targets user-centred design.
Empathy refers to the ability of an individual ‘to feel with’ another. It can be defined as an internal tool that enables a person to push past their preconceived notions and design products and processes based on the users’ needs.
Empathy implies ‘feeling with’ another individual by shedding preconceived notions in order to understand a need from their perspective.
The Nielson Norman Group developed a visual aid to grasp the degree of impact of our emotions on design and customer engagement. The x and y axes represent effort on the part of the designer and understanding, respectively.
The first emotion, Pity, is a low impact sentiment offering no insight into the needs of an end user. The connection is shallow and severed by an emotional disconnect to feel another person’s pain point. Contrarily, at the other end of the spectrum, empathy and compassion pivot design thinking to shed biases by remembering that they are not the end users and must seek to comprehend the needs of the customer.
The Spectrum of Empathy: the higher up an individual moves along the spectrum, the greater the effectiveness in reaching business goals and shedding biases
Emotional Mapping and Pattern Recognition: Are cognitive biases used to identify patterns in behaviour and needs that relies on experiences with past customers to presume needs of current customers.
As we garner experience, our brain develops patterns of behaviour. This process, known as pattern recognition, is a method of creating predictability in our experiences. It makes us believe that needs, personalities, and ways of collaboration that we identify in one situation can be used as a one size fits all mechanism that is applicable in multiple settings. Based on the pattern we recognise, we then begin emotional tagging, a cognitive bias process that ‘tags’ all emotions, both positive and negative, that one would associate with that pattern. When designing products and processes for a new client it is plausible that design thinking can be impaired by the pattern recognition and emotional tagging biases based on experiences with previous customers. These biases when void of empathy can stifle design thinkings’ customisation capabilities.
Setting off from the premise that our biases can mislead us, empathy gives us permission to accept new truths without seeing it as a reflection of our own failure. This helps us to absorb a deeper quality of data about our clients’ needs and promote intelligent, evidence-based design. It provides important information about the unique needs and expectations inspiring realistic solutions.
High performing individuals are often found to possess deep reserves of empathy that are intuitively aware that each client has very specific needs and don’t necessarily fit into presumed categories (Forbes, 2021).
High performing individuals are often found to possess deep reserves of empathy that are intuitively aware that each client has very specific needs and don’t necessarily fit into presumed categories (Forbes, 2021). Particularly in design thinking, empathy creates opportunity for customisable product generation. The importance of empathy and emotional safety permeate across design thinking sectors – including online payment platforms. As transactions become cash-lite, more people work from home and post-pandemic changes become the new normal, the demand for intuitive solutions gets accelerated. As a payment service provider, Novalnet offers customisable solutions to simplify this process so that it aligns with a clients’ needs and brand values. Established in 2007, the organisation serves as a leading portal for global transactions, constantly engaging with its customers to ensure the platform meets the specific needs of its clients. If an intuitive, evidence-based one stop shop collaboration is what your company needs, we would love to support your efforts to bring in the easiest payment solutions for your clients.
Antony Robinson is the Chief Marketing Officer at Novalnet. He is an information technology expert and an avid reader with more than 30 years of experience in web technologies, UX, media and marketing. He has extensive experience in managing global teams in every inhabited continent.