Designing Out Bias

How might we fight unconscious biases in the design process?

All designers, no matter their level of expertise or experience, have to fight against their own unconscious biases every day. Our personal worldview is defined by social and cultural beliefs, perspectives, traditions and taken-for-granted assumptions that we use to effectively move around the world.

While these assumptions are evolutionary in their origins and have helped humans throughout the ages to stay safe and pick up on social cues, they also have unintended consequences. These assumptions limit designers to their own worldview, creating thinking and design habits which are deeply rooted and often incredibly difficult to self-identify.

In essence, we have a blind spot in our brains when it comes to our unconscious biases. Despite our best intentions, we are not aware of where we hold our biases — our brain believes it is helping us by jumping to conclusions, saving us valuable brain processing time that could be better repurposed for more important situations. While these cognitive jumps were essential in times when humans were hunter-gatherers, today, they restrict our design capabilities to serve only people like ourselves.

When seen through the design lens, these unconscious biases inevitably lead to limited design. This does not mean we are bad designers, it simply means we are human.

Unconscious biases may be inevitable, but there is a way to minimize their effect on design and designers.

The first step is becoming aware and acknowledging our own biases. Seems easy, right?

This next step is where it gets a little harder. After understanding our bias, we need to challenge ourselves (every day!) to take action against it.

This is something I struggle with as a designer myself. How was I supposed to tackle biases I didn’t even know existed in the deep recesses of my mind? How could I ever consistently pinpoint them and break them down?

I firmly believe awareness and action in bias have the power to push designers forward to create a world with more inclusive design and design practices. Which is why, alongside the brilliant strategist Isabel Sanoja Ramos, we created Nudge.

Nudge is a tool created to quickly test your assumptions and challenge your designs in the process. By showing you a user situation that is backed up by real statistics and facts, Nudge is a friendly reminder of users we may be forgetting to include.

Through the form of an online card deck, Nudge is free, always accessible and constantly improving. We know we are by no means bias-free, we fight them every day! This is why we designed Nudge in a way that allows users to add their own situations, in adding your experiences, you help our community become more aware.

Our goal in creating Nudge is to amplify the voices of those who might not have a platform to speak out. We want to bring awareness to situations often forgotten in design. Nudge is about listening to user stories, understanding their needs, and advocating for them.

We believe that every user, every situation, and every design is unique. Our goal is to give designers tools that will allow them to give equal consideration to the many different needs that their users might have.

We believe designers have the power to change the world, let’s change it for the better.

We’d love to hear about your own unique stories, feel free to reach out on our website or comment here and help make us and Nudge better!

We would like to thank all of the incredible designers who helped us throughout our research and prototyping process, with special thanks to our amazing teachers that guided us in this project: Brett Brandt and Adriana Valdez Young.

Architect and Strategic Designer