You may have found yourself in a debate over competing products, teams, or devices. You have your reasons, and defend your choice over the other. When you enter the “bias zone” for the usual topics like sports or tech - it can negatively impact user research.

Conscious and unconscious bias

We all carry bias. Some bias we’re aware of, also known as conscious bias, whether it’s a Yankees jersey or an Apple sticker on your car’s rear window. We also carry unconscious bias, and that’s much harder to identify.

While you might think that you don’t bring bias into user research, if you’ve had any experience with the product before the customer, you will carry some level of bias with you.

One of the most valuable things that product designers can do is talk to customers. When you have the opportunity, you want to take advantage of it. If bias, conscious or not, is introduced into that conversation, it will reduce the quality of the results.

Value of user research

Employees are not customers. The value of user research is that it’s sharing the product with someone with “fresh eyes.” The team members that spend days, weeks, or months working on the same feature become blind to it. Just as great writers need great editors, great products need real customers. When customers decide to spend their limited time with you, don’t taint their impression with bias.

Ways to remove bias

To preserve the quality of user research, here are a couple ways to remove bias.

Talk as little as possible

Humans are social creatures. We’re made to socialize. Talk to people and tell them all about our lives, our creations, and what excites us.

Unfortunately, telling a customer about all the things you think are great in your product does introduce bias. It’s only natural. If you say that feature A is awesome, the customer will be more inclined to think it’s awesome. If you go on and on about how terrible feature B is, the customer is more likely to have a negative association with it. Had you said neither, the customer may have struggled with feature A and been delighted by feature B.

Of course, you need to break the ice, be friendly, and make the customer feel welcome. The trick is to do all of that at the beginning of the session. Introduce yourself, get to know the customer, and share you standard spiel. After the introductions I usually say something like this:

“We’re going to be looking at a new feature today. Please keep in mind that we are usability testing the feature, not you. You can’t do or say anything wrong. There’s no way to fail. What you’re here for is to provide your honest opinion, positive or negative, so that I can share your valuable insights with our team so we can make the best product for you and our other customers.

I’d like for you to talk out loud as much as possible, as if you’re narrating your actions. This is really valuable for us to be able to understand what you’re thinking. You might get stuck while interacting with the product, and you may want to ask me how to do accomplish the task. If you do, I’m probably not going to tell you. I don’t do this because I enjoy watching you struggle. I do it because I want to simulate, as much as possible, how you would get through this challenge if I wasn’t here. Observing how you handle these issues is really helpful to us in improving the customer experience.”

Next I’ll give the customer their first activity, such as “add an item to your cart,” and then I stop talking. It’s really important to say as little as possible so that you can hear what the customer says and observe what they do — which are often completely different things. This is critical when the customer gets stuck.

If you have another team member with you, it’s very important they understand this as well. Other team members will really want to provide the solution, such as, “It’s the green button on the right!” It’s crucial that the customer is not interrupted because this can introduce bias. They’re smart and capable adults that will figure it out. You’re not here to train the customer how to use your product. You are here to discover their valuable insights.

Of course, more blatant attempts to introduce bias should be discouraged. Please ensure your team member never tells the customer about their “pet” feature, favorite color, or things they like from other products. Your team member should say even less than you do.

Neutral third party

If possible, have a different team member share the idea, wireframe, prototype, product, etc., with customers. The reason for this is that those with “skin in the game” are much more likely to bring bias into the session, whereas neutral third parties are less likely. Whether it’s a designer defending a visual treatment that inspired them, a product manager trying to push through their idea, or a manager who wants to see a similar treatment from a competitor, this bias will “lead the witness” into saying or doing things they wouldn’t have otherwise.

User research is primarily intended to uncover insights from customers. This could be a pain point, an idea for improvement, or unknown way that they interact with the product. User research is not to prove someone right, decide which approach is better, or A/B test. The most valuable insights will be obvious to anyone watching. They will also be things you probably hadn’t even considered.

Bias free zone

As much as possible, try to check your bias before you meet with customers. Providing a “bias free zone” will go a long way to ensure that you’ll receive honest, genuine, and valuable insights from your customers.