Source: AI generated image created by Khyati Trehan

Reflecting on our own biases

Everyone carries their own unique set of backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. This introduces a question that is particularly challenging for the design researcher – the influence of biases. Despite a strong evidence-based approach and the best intentions, as researchers we are not immune to the natural tendency of our brain to simplify information and make quick judgments based on our cultural context and past experiences. If we don’t pay attention to them, these biases can significantly impact the way we interpret research findings and even formulate research questions.

Zoom on confirmation bias

Biases can take many forms and shapes, and they are most likely to appear when we have to act fast or have to collect a lot of information at the same time. Let’s take the example of ‘confirmation bias’. Imagine a scenario where a researcher has interviewed their first set of four participants for their study. The researcher will naturally start to observe some emerging patterns; which is good, but they might then start developing a sense of confidence that they already have a clear understanding of the topic, based on the information gathered so far. This is where ‘confirmation bias’ can come into play. The researcher might unconsciously feel that the fifth interview will lead to the same outcome and will be drawn to details that confirm these beliefs. This could therefore prompt the researcher to ask leading questions or interpret the participants’s answers in a way that confirms what they have already heard. This could result in the researcher missing out on valuable insights that the fifth interview could have potentially provided if approached without the influence of ‘confirmation bias’.

How to mitigate this effect?

Developing an awareness of the type of preconceived ideas that our brain is capable of creating; and taking proactive steps to mitigate their influence on our work, is something all design researchers should do. It helps us manage the influence of our own personal biases, and helps us strive to deliver the best possible design research we can.

Here are examples of simple questions you can ask yourself before and during a research project, to train your awareness muscle again and again!

  • What experiences have shaped my perspectives on this topic?
  • Am I emotionally involved,  And is this emotional response influencing my approach?
  • What unconscious stereotypes do I hold?
  • How do I approach diversity in this research?
  • Do I listen actively to what is being said?
  • Am I looking for confirmation? 
  • Am I considering the whole context?
  • What preconceptions might I hold on the research results?
  • Am I projecting my own preferences? 
  • How do I handle contradictory findings?

A solution amongst many more!

Being aware of your own biases is the first step in minimising the influence they may have. Working as part of a team with diverse skills and backgrounds remains a good way to counterbalance each researchers’ influence and obtain more neutral perspectives in research.

By Jeanne Renoult