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CONFLICT & DESIGN

Manager, User Experience

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Designing an optimal user experience requires overcoming bias and embracing conflict. Join Aleks Savic as she describes the challenge, and offers recommendations on how we can better understand our audiences to create the best experiences possible.

I’ve often wondered about how we describe user experience design. The first point of cognitive dissonance for me was the notion that I could do something to design experiences for anyone, as if I had some way of reaching into the complex sensory and perceptual workings of a human mind and reframing how a user actually experiences anything. If I actually had that power, I would be an extremely dangerous person.

And yet, that is the impossible task I set myself when I design something: immerse myself to such a degree in my users’ worlds that I emerge from the deep ocean of user research embodying deep truths about who my primary user is and what she wants. Like a kind of method acting, if I spend enough time in the boxing ring, I too can become the De Niro of design. And a user will take one look at what I’ve created and think, “hey, that looks just like me!”

I don’t think it works that way.

And yet, I’ve seen so many blog posts and articles about how important primary research is, how the solution to getting inside your user’s head is to empathize, how open ended questions can help you generate deep insights.

Some authors talk about why that’s important: confirmation bias, the tendency to affirm our frame of thinking whenever we are confronted with new information, is a powerful force to overcome when designing anything for users.

But why do we have confirmation bias in the first place? One theory posed by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber suggests that confirmation bias is actually a feature of our reasoning brains. Our reasoning faculties are not aimed at uncovering truth, but in communicating effectively with others.

In other words, cognitive bias helps us win arguments.

When we acknowledge as designers of products and services that we have strong tendencies towards confirmation bias, we may come to acknowledge that we use primary research to bolster our own point of view, sometimes even at the expense of a user’s point of view. To acknowledge our confirmation bias is to acknowledge that there may be conflict between us.

Conflict can engage our emotional selves in a way that makes it impossible to listen during a user interview, or empathize with a user during a usability test, or “be objective” when conducting observational field research.

“Be objective” sounds as frail and Pollyanna-ish as “be empathetic”, and yet this is the advice that UX designers are given on how to approach the task of understanding users.

“Acknowledge that human communication is fraught with misunderstanding” and “conflict is your brain’s way of reasoning” is a tougher pill to swallow, but ultimately leads to more effective methods and approaches to design.

In my next post, I’ll unpack some of these methods and approaches. For now, I’ll leave you with some questions:

How do you deal with conflict? In what situations are you maximizing your “concern for self” over your “concern for others? Are there situations where the opposite is true, where you are more empathetic than assertive?

Until then, let’s chat!

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