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Don’t Let Your Own Biases Derail Your Website Design

An illustration of an ethnically diverse group of individuals looking at a laptop and a tablet.
March 17, 2022

Like it or not, we all bring our own biases to our work.

And we can bet our friends, colleagues, mentors, and even neighbors bring their own biases to their work. After all, there is no way around it. Unintentional bias is part of the human experience.

Those of us in UX design have long known this, but that doesn’t let us off the hook. In fact, it justifies our existence and makes our work all the more necessary, given that user research and usability testing, done well, unravel the inevitable biases intertwined in website design and content planning. Our primary aim, in fact, is to create an inclusive user experience, not just for a select user group but for all users. Here, we share some of the steps we’ve taken to identify and work through our own biases—and create websites and content designed especially for unique users.

1. Understand the difference between cognitive and unconscious biases.

As humans, we bring more than one kind of bias to our work—two of which are cognitive and unconscious biases.

Our cognitive biases refer to the unintentional errors we make in thinking, remembering, problem-solving, paying attention, and making decisions. Psychologists believe cognitive biases stem from our brain attempting to take short cuts and simplify the tasks we need to complete in a complex, information-saturated world. This means, for instance, that we bring our own cognitive biases to the task of, say, building a website’s navigation. Here, we might unintentionally create a navigation that uses vernacular language or jargon that is clear to us but not to those who work outside of our organization or industry.

Unconscious biases, on the other hand, refer to unintentional and unconscious stereotyping and discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientaiton, ability, and other forms of identity. These biases are ingrained in our psyche and do not necessarily align with the thoughts and opinions of our conscious minds. We can change our unconscious biases, but it takes work.

By talking to and engaging with diverse groups of people, and by educating ourselves on matters relating to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), we can work to bring awareness of and eventually overcome our biases, both cognitive and unconscious. Conducting user research and usability testing, too, can help us make sure that our designs reflect the unique needs of our users, instead of our own biases.

2. Make conscious efforts to overcome your biases.

Just as overcoming a bad habit takes work, overcoming our biases to design for and include a broad user base takes work. One of the most helpful sources we’ve encountered in our own efforts to overcome biases is editor Karen Yin’s concept of “conscious language,” which Yin defines as “language rooted in critical thinking and compassion, used skillfully in a specific context.”

The first step in conscious language, Yin continues, involves asking yourself a series of questions:

From there, Yin advises familiarizing yourself with language that offends various groups of people, from individuals who are young or elderly to those who have a disability. Her website, Conscious Style Guide, offers a plethora of advice about how to talk to and engage various groups in a respectful, inclusive manner. While you won’t be able to read everything she offers in one sitting—her site is robust and comprehensive—you can bookmark her site and browse it when you can. The lessons learned are well worth the effort!

3. Reframe how you think of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

Clients sometimes come to us with frantic questions about how to meet accessibility requirements, whether for the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), or Section 508. Embedded in the question is a fear that meeting these requirements will somehow detract from and lessen the overall design in some way. Yet, in our experience, the opposite ends up happening.

“We often see disability and accessibility as a design problem to solve or a design constraint,” writes Liz Jackson, a disability design advocate for The Disabled List. “I’d just love to see what could happen if we start from a point of, ‘What can disability tell us about how we can be making spaces differently?’” With this shift in mindset, organizations and designers transition from “how can we meet the requirements?” to the more pertinent and constructive question: “how can we design for all of our users?” While the former question sets up a “must-do” mindset of checking-off boxes, the latter opens doors to thinking critically and creatively to design for a diverse, equitable, and inclusive world.

4. Conduct user research and usability testing.

As mentioned earlier, the only way we can truly step outside of our own biases is to learn about our user groups, in all of their variety, through comprehensive user research and usability testing. Comprehensive user research involves both qualitative and quantitative research.

At Astriata, our methodology utilizes a range of qualitative and quantitative research measures like individual interviewing, polls, and surveys to focus groups, usability testing through our proprietary platform, UserHappy®, card sorting, and tree testing—all of which enable us to engage with and hear from a diverse group of people, with varying interests and needs.

With tree testing, for instance, we tap into users’ natural inclinations to find and locate content, tracking their movements as they navigate a website in search of something specific. Then, we use what we learn to organize our client’s information architecture in ways that work for diverse users.

With thorough user research and testing, we can step outside of our own cognitive and unconscious biases to create the website we need to create: one that serves the needs of our users.

Looking for more tips to make your site more inclusive? Read our recent blog post, “How DEI Can Strengthen User Experience.”

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