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Cognitive psychology for UX: how to avoid the false consensus effect

Spencer Lanoue  |  April 14, 2016

We all see the world through our own unique filters.

These filters are based on our personal experience, culture, context/environment, and our frame of mind.

And they come with an unintended side effect that most of us aren’t aware of: they cause us to falsely believe that other people see the world the same way we do.

To show you what I mean, let’s do a quick exercise. If I asked you to walk around your local college campus for 30 minutes wearing an “Eat at Joe’s” sign, would you do it?

False consensus effect - "Eat at Joe's" sign from the Tex Avery show called "Jerky Turkey"

Source: Onyx Media

In a study conducted at Stanford, 104 college students were asked this very same question—and they were told they were absolutely free to refuse if they wished. Here’s what happened:

  • 62.2% of the people who agreed to wear the sign thought that others would also agree to wear it
  • 67% of those who refused to wear the sign thought that others would also refuse to wear it

There was a majority in both cases. So what’s going on here exactly?

Enter: the false consensus effect

This phenomenon is called the false consensus effect, and it’s the tendency to overestimate the degree to which other people will agree with you, think like you, and behave like you.

A lot of companies fall into this trap.

It’s surprising how often companies (even the most successful ones) believe they’ve come up with a promising new product or feature, and assume that users will love it as much as they do.

But when they launch, the market just doesn’t respond the way they expect it to.

(Think: Facebook Home, Microsoft’s Windows Phone, the Segway, and the long list of failed products that you’ve never heard of.)

Often times we have to remind our customers—and ourselves:

Typical users don’t think and behave the same way that people who work for your organization think they will.

Like the popular UX maxim goes: you are not your user.

Which begs the question: how do you avoid falling victim to the false consensus effect?

How to avoid the false consensus effect

Building a new product or feature always comes with risk.

You’ll almost always have to make decisions based on limited information, and that requires you to make assumptions—either implicitly or explicitly.

There’s no way to avoid uncertainty completely.

But you can reduce the probability of failure for your product by identifying the assumptions you’re making about what your intended users or buyers need—and then testing their validity before starting the expensive process of development.

Jock Busuttil, an instructor at General Assembly, summed it up well:

“Leaping into the creation of a product on gut instinct alone, without doing research and rigorously putting your assumptions to the test, is the business equivalent of driving blindfolded.”

There are few strategies to help you challenge your assumptions and reduce your risk by collecting hard evidence to validate your product decisions.

Strategy #1: Identify your assumptions

The Practitioner’s Guide to Product Management offers a good exercise to start with.

Sit down with your most honest or cynical colleague or friend—preferably someone who works at a different company, and who you trust will tell you the truth instead of telling you what they think you want to hear.

Describe your product’s value proposition to her in as much detail as you can. Explain to her what your product offers, who it’s for, and why you think they’ll use it.

Your friend’s job is to write down all the assumptions you’re making.

For each assumption she identifies, she should ask you, “How do you know that x is true?” to verify whether or not you have supporting evidence to prove it.

At the end of this exercise, you’ll have compiled a long list of assumptions.

The next step is to prioritize the riskiest assumptions that could potentially have the largest impact on your product—and to devise a set of experiments to put them to the test.

Strategy #2: Conversations with your target market

Now that you have a list of your most critical assumptions, it’s time to get out of the building and start having conversations with your intended users or buyers.

"Facts live outside the building, where future customer (prospects, really) live and work, so that's where you need to go." —Steve Blank

Contact at least ten people in your target market and set up as many hour-long interviews as you can in exchange for free lunch, coffee, or a gift card.

If you have the opportunity to shadow them for a day, that’s even better!

The purpose of these conversations is to deeply understand who these people are and to develop as much empathy as possible for what life is like for them.

This is not the time to pitch your product or talk about your company. Your job is to ask questions, listen attentively, and digest what they have to say. Find out:

  • What they do for a living
  • How they spend their day-to-day
  • Where and when they experience the problem you’re solving
  • How they currently deal with the problem when it comes up
  • What other products they use

Each conversation give you insight into the problem you’re solving and who you’re solving it for.

After a few conversation you’ll start to notice trends that will either confirm or challenge the picture you have of the target user of your product and what you think they want.

(And if you want to learn how to take these learnings and compile them into user personas, check out these resources.)

Strategy #3: Continuous user testing

The final strategy for avoiding the false consensus effect is a technique known as continuous user testing—which is when you use a virtual usability testing lab to observe people (on a regular cadence) as they use your product and speak their thoughts out loud.

The purpose of testing your assumptions is to learn where you can make improvements. And continuous user testing will help you challenge your assumptions, build empathy for your users, and rapidly and incrementally iterate toward the right product to build.

But how do you integrate continuous user testing into your product development workflow? Here’s how Quip’s product team did it:

“Our product team developed a healthy cadence where we would iterate on a part of the user experience based on some hypothesis, deploy the changes to production, and then run a user test on the new version.

Within the hour, we’d receive detailed feedback from real people and watch 30-minute long videos of people making sense of—or failing to make sense of—our changes.

Based on our learnings, we’d brainstorm solutions to eliminate sources of friction and confusion and repeat the cycle.” —Edmond Lau, software engineer at Quip

You don’t need to write any code to start learning about your target market’s behaviors, habits, concerns, and preferences.

In fact, the earlier you start getting feedback and making course corrections, the easier the product will be to change and the less effort your team will waste.

Start by sketching your design out on paper and testing that mockup with a few people, then move on to testing your wireframes and prototypes.

By testing your product strategy with simpler prototypes before building an MVP, you’ll have validated so many of your hypotheses—and eliminated so many false assumptions—that you’ll be able to make product decisions based on hard evidence rather than what you think your users will like.

Final thoughts

To recap, human beings have a natural tendency to overestimate the degree to which other people will agree with us, think like us, and behave like us. It’s your job to protect your team from falling victim to this bias.

“You might have spotted a potentially lucrative problem to solve, but at the early stages you know little about the people in the market you’ll be catering to.

You may have a vague idea of what your product would need to do to solve the problem, but you’re lacking the detail of how it will do this.

All this uncertainty translates to risk, and risk in turn can translate into cost and can account for the overall success or failure of the product.” —Jock Busuttil, instructor at General Assembly

Keep your focus on the users. And be rigorous about identifying and challenging the assumptions your team is making about who they are and what they need.

Have conversations with the intended users or buyers of your product and build as much empathy as you can for them.

And instead of waiting until you have a live version of your product to see how people actually use it, put your design in the hands of real users and watch how they interact with it—from initial sketches and wireframes to prototypes and MVPs.

The feedback you get will give you a fresh perspective and help you discover what you need to iterate and improve—rather than building a product nobody wants or needs.

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About the author:

Spencer Lanoue is a marketer who helps UX designers, PMs, and marketers make things people want.