meet dr. Verhulsdonk and discover more on cognitive biases in usability and user experience
meet dr. Verhulsdonk and discover more on cognitive biases in usability and user experience

Below is an interview with Dr. Gustav Verhulsdonck which provides an overview of cognitive biases and their role in usability and user experience. Dr. Verhulsdonck provides introductory information on cognitive biases for technical communicators that are unfamiliar with the concept, and he discusses the importance of cognitive biases in design.

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Meet Dr. Verhulsdonck

Madison Brown 

Good afternoon Dr. Verhulsdonck. Can you please begin by introducing yourself? 

Dr. Gustav Verhulsdonck 

Of course. My name is Gustav Verhulsdonck and I am an assistant professor in Business Information Systems at Central Michigan University. Currently, I am an international research partner at the Digital Life Institute (a consortium of international scholars studying digital technologies and AI). I have worked as a technical writer for International Business Machines (IBM) and as a visiting researcher for the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies. My research has appeared in the Journal of Business and Technical Communication, Technical Communication Quarterly, ACM’s Communication Design Quarterly, and the STC’s Intercom Magazine.

Madison Brown 

Thank you, that is an impressive introduction. In your own words, how would you define cognitive biases?

Dr. Gustav Verhulsdonck 

Cognitive biases are shortcuts, habits, and heuristics that we use to get through our everyday life that I think factor into different situations. That’s my short description. I don’t know if you want me to continue on that.

Roles of Cognitive Biases in Design

Madison Brown 

That’s perfect. Thank you. How would you describe the role of cognitive biases in design, and would you say that they have more than one role?

Dr. Gustav Verhulsdonck 

Yes. So, the function of cognitive biases in design, right now, I’m seeing it as two-fold. I’m seeing it as benefits which allow you to better understand your user and to make use of cognitive biases. Knowing that your user is distracted and does hyperbolic discounting, an important question to ask is how can you simplify the design so that they can use it and they’re happy? The other side is that cognitive biases can also be misused. Your understanding of people’s cognitive biases, such as once again, hyperbolic discounting, in which users seek an immediate reward. I don’t really want to think about the long-term future effect, but this knowledge can also create deceptive dark design patterns and those are not really good for the user. If you’re interested, I know there’s a darkpatterns.org. Harry Brignull has cataloged a lot of these dark patterns, Colin Gray has also studied them, and there’s also hashtags like #darkUX, where people are decrying how companies and websites are using deceptive design patterns that mistreat or deceive the end user because the user in a hurry and they don’t want to spend too much time. I think there’s a definite role there and the reason why I say there’s a definite role is that I think we’re slowly moving away from just usability, and we are in the area of user experience design.

So, usability includes the functional aspects such as can you achieve the task? Then I think we’re moving into user experience design, where we’re looking at before, during, and after an interaction, and what are the emotions, feelings, behaviors of users and how can we make them so that the user finds the attraction pleasant, not just usable, but pleasant, and ensure they have trust in the design. I feel like there’s a big shift towards user experience design, and we need to look at cognitive biases as heuristics that our users will bring to our documentation, our content, and our designs. Hopefully that makes sense. That’s a long answer.

Madison Brown 

That’s fascinating. It does make sense. I appreciate the two-part aspect of both usability and user experience.

Dr. Gustav Verhulsdonck 

Well, maybe there’s more. Those are the two kind of areas I see absolutely.

Cognitive Biases and User Experience

Madison Brown 

Expanding on user experience, how would you say that these cognitive biases can influence the user’s experience or expectations?

Dr. Gustav Verhulsdonck 

There are three areas. Eric Schaeffer, I think, is his name. He talks about PET or persuasive design, emotions and trust. I think he bases himself on the work of BJ Fogg, who’s popularized, I believe, persuasive design. So, I think those are important components of user experience design. Is it persuasive? Is it engaging for us because we’re so distracted? We have so many different media asking, clamoring for our attention. There is a cognitive bias called the peak-end cognitive bias. Research psychologists found that we only remember peaks like really negative or really positive experiences, and anything that was kind of neutral or that went well, we tend to forget. So, our emotional state is important. The emotional state of the user and then trust, I think, also ties in with that, that you feel like you could trust the design because so much of our lives are online now and so many things that we do from pension plans or financial transactions are online. Those are, I think, crucial components in user experience design. There’s also a behavioral economics component that I’m happy to talk more about or I can keep it short.

Madison Brown 

I think that’s a wonderful explanation, and I definitely see all those aspects revolving around user experience. In your opinion, why should technical communicators study and be conscious of these cognitive biases in their design and of the biases that their audience may possess?

Dr. Gustav Verhulsdonck 

Okay, I see this as a better way to know your user so that we [designers] can have better user understanding. I see it as an extension of thinking about cognitive load. So, we know about cognitive load and that we must reduce cognitive load for our users by kind of chunking our information. I think having an awareness of cognitive biases lets you go a bit more deeply into the psychology of the user and so I’ll give you an example. Once again, hyperbolic discounting, where people tend to go for something immediate rather than something far off into the future. Well, if you know that about users then you also know that if you’re overwhelming them with information that they’re not going to like that. But let’s say you have an end user license agreement, and you have the important point conversationally, this design allows them to know “yes, this is what I want to do” or “no, this is not what I want to do”. Then you’re helping them with an informational need, and you enhance their trust. So likewise, if you know that you’re in a situation where users are not aware of what they should be doing and you can design using an understanding of social proof, that people sometimes will do things because other people are doing them, you can then add a message such as, “this many people have started their retirement discounts with company x”. The message assures that user and helps them do something which is quite important, to start a retirement savings account, no matter how small. 

So, I think given that our lives have become more online, we’re moving away from “here are the instructions” kind of model of technical communication and into user experience design. I think that’s super important. I think it’s a better way of psychologically understanding your user in relation to how they look at information and the habits they bring to that information. I see this as an extension of usability into user experience and a better understanding of your user beyond, oh, they have cognitive load or they like usability. You’re going into actual practical components of people’s behavior that could help them in a significant way. Hopefully that answers your question.

Cognitive Biases in the Design Process

Madison Brown 

I appreciate the wonderful perspective. Then addressing the application of cognitive biases, should cognitive biases always be considered or accounted for in the design process? In other words, would the usability of someone’s design, such as a website, app, or online document, decrease without considering their audience’s cognitive biases or without accounting for those needs?

Dr. Gustav Verhulsdonck 

I think having an awareness of cognitive biases in general is important, but I think it depends on the situation. Sometimes, even if your user is a cognitive miser and they don’t want to spend too much time deep thinking about things you may still be unable to reduce the information to bullet points. For instance, simplifying certain situations like signing financial documents, buying a home, or something that is super important, you have to go over things with them. You need to be aware when being aware of your users’ cognitive biases is important. I don’t think it’s a hard and fast rule of, oh, they [users] are cognitive misers. Therefore, for all users, we can’t just remove text and just give them a Cliff Notes/simplified version. So my answer is it depends. I think it is, as a general rule, cognitive biases can allow you to think about your user in a deeper way, knowing that we all share these habits. We don’t want to overspend on thinking, we rely on habits. We have these different types of ways of interacting with the world that are pretty common to people. So, in that sense, I think it’s an interesting design heuristic that you can apply. Does that answer your question?

Madison Brown 

Yes. So basically, it’s another tool for understanding and aiding your user.

Learn more about Cognitive Biases

Madison Brown 

Perfect. For our last and final question, what are some resources that you might recommend to technical communicators who want to expand or learn about cognitive biases?

Dr. Gustav Verhulsdonck 

Okay. So, at the risk of sounding and self-promoting, I do think my article with Nadya Shalamova, “Creating Content That Influences People: Considering User Experience and Behavioral Design in Technical Communication” in the Journal of Technical Writing and Communication is a good start. I think there’s also cognitive biases in Susan Weinschenk’s book, “100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People” which gives a good sense of what people do, how to implement design strategies, and how to think about people. So, this is a really good resource. There’s also a codex of 100 different cognitive biases that gets overly technical. Daniel Kahneman’s book, “Thinking Fast and Slow” is good to have at a conceptual level. It asks if the user employs a Systems 1 thought process, which is a quick and shallow kind of thinker, or a System 2 situation where the user does deep rational logic contemplation. System 2 just takes time, it’s slower. Beyond that, for cognitive biases or dark UX, I would recommend Harry Brignull’s website darkpatterns.org. It has a great catalog of dark UX patterns.

Colin Gray has a great work in human-computer interaction on dark UX patterns. BJ Fogg is a psychologist and his work on persuasive design, and particularly his formula of motivation, ability, and trigger is, I think, quite important to look at how you can use cognitive biases and the motivation of the user, their abilities and the triggers or prompts in the interface to get them to behave in a particular intended way. So, I think those are important touchstones. Also, I think BJ Fogg created a starfish model, which I think is fascinating for user experience design where he says, “don’t design for the outcome but design for the behavior”. He kind of compares that to regular user experience journey mapping, and then it creates a starfish, like changing these different components of behavior towards a particular outcome. So really thinking about the user and their behavior from a cognitive biases standpoint and factoring that into design, I think is also fascinating. So, there’s a ton of work out there in terms of applying it to user experience design.

Madison Brown 

These are all perfect. Thank you so much. I appreciate the recommendations, are there any additional comments or suggestions that you wanted to add?

Dr. Gustav Verhulsdonck 

I hope that people start studying cognitive biases and behavioral design and design patterns in general. I think we have gigantic libraries of design patterns that are being used in UX to structure everyday interactions, and these are created with an understanding of the user’s cognitive biases. So I think our field stands to gain a whole lot by understanding that. The better we get at identifying design patterns, I think the better and more effective content will become as new design patterns emerge that people are expecting. There’s tons of good research out there and hopefully that then encourages people to want to research it. I’m definitely excited that you’re doing that. Other people are doing that as well. Kirk [Dr. Kirk St. Amant, the Eunice C. Williamson Chair in Technical Communication at Louisiana Tech University and Guest Professor for the TCLoc Master’s at the University of Strasbourg] most definitely is as well with scripting theory, he’s looking at it in a different way, but also addressing design patterns and people’s heuristic expectations. I think that’s quite interesting as well.

The other component, which I find interesting, is that global communication, has shown us that we all have cognitive biases. They are pre linguistic, I think. The use of mobile devices has made it become this common language. So, I think we are talking about a different way of communicating that people now expect when they go to a different country or different culture. Users can still rely on the same design pattern or heuristic to figure out how to use a device. Sometimes the activity may be installing a new app, installing something on a gaming console, or knowing when to do a two-factor authentication. So, I think we were seeing that kind of broadening of design patterns that are not culture specific. I believe he [Dr. St. Amant] is working in that area as well.

Madison Brown 

Thank you Dr. Verhulsdonck for your time and insight on cognitive biases. I appreciate you meeting with me, and I hope you have a wonderful weekend.

Dr. Gustav Verhulsdonck 

Thank you, you too!

Interviewer: Madison Brown

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