How Cognitive Biases Shape User Experience

How Cognitive Biases Shape User Experience

Everyone develops opinions regarding how things should look, how things should behave, and what things should be called. These cognitive biases make up the filter between what actually exists, and what we perceive to be true.

The field of experience design attempts to realize a user’s cognitive biases, or opinions, and rationalizes design decisions that make use of those biases.

If a UX designer or UX strategist does not go through the process of identifying and incorporating users’ cognitive biases into their work, it stands to be misinterpreted, and site goals stand to be unachieved.

What many UX professionals tend to forget is that they also develop cognitive biases that influence the work they produce. If these biases aren’t recognized and accounted for, the produced experience could be optimized for the designer, rather than the user. A common issue in agency life involves catering an experience to the cognitive biases present in the room (the stakeholders), rather than those identified through research and ethnography.

What follows are examples of cognitive biases of site users as well as stakeholders.

Users’ Cognitive Biases

Let’s discuss some cognitive biases our users bring with them when they use our site.

"I know where it should be located"

Users tend to have a preconceived understanding about where certain page elements are likely to be located. For example, many users will look for a sign-in button in the upper right corner of page.

Mint sign-in/login and sign-up buttons are at the top right of the web page, where users expect them to be.

Consideration: Placement of key/common page elements that are crucial to completing critical user flows should be handled with care and purpose.

"I know how it should look"

Users develop preconceived ideas regarding how many page elements should look. For example, a beveled edge on a graphic can give the impression that the element functions as a button.

A call-to-action button with a hover state. Learn how to make it by reading the tutorial.

Consideration: Visual appearance of key elements and groupings of content is important to the user experience. Analogies to physical objects should be adhered to, but should not be taken literally. Principles of Gestalt psychology should be applied in order to compose logical visual hierarchies and content groups.

"I know how it should behave"

Interactions with everyday things — both online and offline — influence a user’s cognitive biases when performing site actions. For example, users will tend to expect linked content to appear in the same format and location as the origin, unless explicitly told otherwise. This applies to PDFs and pop-up windows. If content will appear as a PDF or within a pop-up window, an explicit label should be associated with the call-to-action.

Consideration: Interaction design should be well thought out. Interaction design is often given a back seat to information architecture, but the two must work in unison for an effective site experience. It’s often the job of the web developer to interpret the interaction design. However, the UX professional can create prototypes that illustrate the desired interactions or create a set of interaction design flows and storyboards.

"I know what it should be called"

It’s widely known that Internet users tend to scan web pages for information, rather than reading and evaluating all information offered on the page. This scanning pattern causes users to seek out a keyword or a set of keywords.

For example, users often associate the term "contact us" with all forms of contact information. If the user is looking for a phone number, address, or email address, they’ll be scanning your site for the keyword phrase "contact us".

Techi, a technology news site, has a "contact us" link at the footer of all web pages.

Consideration: Taxonomy and nomenclature is important for taking advantage of this cognitive bias. Using common/recognizable nomenclature and categorization labels is one of the most important parts of UX design.

Often, taxonomy and nomenclature is given a back seat to visual design. Although visual design is very important, it’s not as important as creating the proper taxonomy and nomenclature.

Cognitive Biases of Stakeholders

Clients and project team members also have preconceived notions concerning the user experience. The following are some of them.

"I know what the user wants"

Stakeholders often transfer their own opinions to the user. If the stakeholder behaves a certain way, they often believe it’s a common way for others to behave.

Consideration: How was this bias established? Was it through reason/logic, experience, testing, research or secondhand knowledge?

"I know what the business wants"

It is the job of stakeholders to interpret (and prioritize) the wants and needs of the business. Aligning business needs with customer needs is where a UX professional is required to rely on creativity and social sciences.

There are many different ways (and timelines) for achieving what the business wants. The majority of businesses want their users to be happy, so balancing this with specific use cases will be important.

Consideration: What makes a user happy? Creating a pleasing experience is second only to a usable experience. If you have to sacrifice the experience of 10 people to improve the experience for 1, you’ll need to consider the value of that 1 user.

"I know what’s technically possible"

Stakeholders are often inhibited by their IT or technical team. Redesigns are often undertaken without thinking about "re-platforming" or new technological advances that could support the redesign.

Broken or mismanaged IT systems often inhibit user experiences. This should be much rarer than it is. (See Adaptive Path’s Cake/Cupcake Model.)

Consideration: Which systems govern the core functionality of the user experience? Are there system integration issues across digital properties? What could prevent future scalability?

"I know what best practices are"

UX professionals tend to be egotistical in terms of understanding the fundamental best practices in web design. Understanding that there are multiple ways to solve a problem, and that the most innovative design patterns require out-of-the-box thinking, a UX professional can make recommendations without ignoring the possibility of improving a standard convention.

Consideration: Although there are some fundamental best practices, there are always new conventions being established. They can be used as guidelines, but should not discourage the creation of innovative user experiences.


With this framework, you can quickly identify key areas you can target for user research and ethnographic activities to derive cognitive bias insights from. These insights should influence your design decisions and help guide your overarching experience plan.

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About the Author

Jordan Julien an independent consultant who focuses on user experience strategy, digital planning, social media strategy, and SEO. Jordan has recently worked with clients like VISA, RBC, P&G, GE, Telus, Toyota, Coke, Nike, Critical Mass, The Hive, and many others. You can follow Jordan on Twitter @thejordanrules and see more of his work on his blog.

This was published on Apr 28, 2011


Andy Shield Apr 28 2011

Very well written piece Jordan.

I particularly like the angle on stakeholders.

As you imply, it’s important to recognise why stakeholders often approach a project without objectivity and work with this in mind, rather than simply rally against all opinion.

PixelTunnelVision Apr 28 2011

“The field of experience design attempts to realize a user’s cognitive biases, or opinions, and rationalizes design decisions that make use of those biases.” – Only really worth while if a set of common biases are statistically found to be very consistent across large groups of people. Even in simple A/B testing I’ve always found most people tend to flock toward one thing. It’s never a draw or close call. It’s also worthwhile to consider how web UI norms shape biases. If websites from 1994 to 2007 all looked mostly the same, which they did, people come to expect certain layouts. People who want to forge 6-figure careers around mastering UI design that utilizes mounds of psychology and rocket science to parallel how people tick usually just end up making common sense stuff in the end anyway.

Phillip Zelnar Apr 28 2011

Thanks for the great article. This type of background is always helpful in helping clients understand that using their site to “reinvent the way the internet works” is usually not a great idea. I’m a big fan of accepting precedents and then trying to improve on them.

Jatin Apr 29 2011

Nice findings, great article.

Dino Dogan Apr 29 2011

Dude…i think about this shit all the time. Its amazing when it works, and its even more amazing when you think you KNOW its going to look right and perceived as expected and then boof! users dont get it.

Its always a delicate dance. Great post :-)

Jane Jordan Apr 30 2011

Hi Jordan, nice article.
As designers we are sometimes guilty of using our own experience as the key to what everyone else thinks.

For some of our design work, when we are discussing the usability one of the scenarios I consider is an older person, as some older people are not as as au faux with the cognitive biases that young people are. Throwing this in the mix helps us produce material that is more usable by a wider audience.

Simon White May 02 2011

I particularly like your comment “Although visual design is very important, it’s not as important as creating the proper taxonomy and nomenclature.” Often, I have worked with mockups and wireframes where you get to the inevitable “this widget / call to action isn’t visible enough” when in fact it’s still got draft wording or no wording at all. It’s incredibly hard, however, to get delivery of close to final copy before wireframes are already validated. So the bias when the final wordings come in can change the feel of the page completely and cause – at best – a design reiteration. Usually the site just goes live and you’re forever playing catchup afterwards.

It’s counter-intuitive, because the link between what is written in the page and the visual design is so fundamental yet seemingly counter-intuitive for many people (except excellent copywriters, who are worth their weight in gold IMHO).


Irina Shishkina May 06 2011

Great insight and very well written. Another thing to consider is the target audience. It’s quite important to understand who will use your website as different users have different expectations.

Being a graphic/web designer I strive to make my sites both usable and visually appealing. Sometimes pleasing yourself, your client and the target audience can be really challenging as clients ( as well as us, designers) also have preconceived notions concerning what a website should look like.

Christopher Brown Sep 05 2011

Lovely piece, with great detail to attention.

So many people “design” without the user in mind. Simplicity and great UI is so inportant in web design. Many of the big players do not recognise this.

Amrit Nov 05 2011

It is important to know and understand what the user is used to, user’s cognitive biases, to give the user a familiar experience. But designers should also be a little bold and experience with new things from time to time.

Rob Marchant Nov 29 2011

I studied cognition and usability at university, fascinating subject. Thanks for sharing!

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