User research with students: overcoming cognitive bias

Choosing a university is one of the most important decisions a student will make.

Think about the components of a university website: course pages, accommodation information, research projects, lecturer information. Hundreds of pages all competing for attention. Hundreds of opportunities to positively influence a student’s decision making.

Choosing a university is one of the most important decisions a student will make. It’s both an emotional and a rational decision but the power of emotions often outweighs the rational; just look at that last Amazon purchase you made! The universities that tend to excel in recruiting, engaging and retaining students are those that demonstrate empathy through their digital experiences and appeal to the emotional thought process.

The more rational, practical needs are, of course, still vitally important but the key to that initial, unbreakable connection is undoubtedly emotional. To design better student experiences we must understand their emotional needs. In short, empathy is king.

The most effective way to achieve a level of empathy with students is by conducting user research. Issues can quickly arise, however, as it’s all too easy to let past experiences in Higher Education create a cognitive bias when doing research. We tell ourselves “I’ve worked in this industry for 10 years, I know what students need” or “I’ve designed 15 different university websites, I’m an expert at this.” This type of thinking prevents us from improving and creating something new that really gets to the heart of our prospective students’ needs.

This problem manifests itself most notably when analysing the outcome of the research. We are hard-wired to see that we are already looking for. Our brains are subconsciously filled with assumptions and preconceptions. But we must somehow overcome these biases when analysing the outcomes of the research.

Cognitive bias can manifest itself in several ways. Two types are most common: ‘confirmation bias’ and ‘anchoring bias’.

Confirmation Bias

When conducting a user interview, the interviewee may say something that the interviewer had already assumed. Because of our confirmation bias we give this particular sound bite more value than anything else they say. As soon as we make this connection we latch onto it without exploring it further, failing to ask why or how this is true. This is confirmation bias and it affects how we prioritise our research findings. It happens because we have the tendency to trust information that falls in line with our preconceptions.

Anchoring Bias

In this example, imagine an interviewee states that they have a preference for search taking prominence on the homepage. If this is something the interviewer relates to, they might ‘anchor’ it and base future decisions on the assumption that it is gospel. The interviewer subconsciously places greater value on one piece of information they have taken in. Often this piece of information is something heard very early on that strikes a chord with them.

Facing the problem

Accepting that cognitive bias exists is the easy part, but recognising it in ourselves is the difficulty. Social psychologist, Emily Pronin, conducted a cognitive bias test in 2002 of 600 people. She discovered that 85% of those tested believed themselves to be less biased than the average person. This shows how blind people are to their own biases. It’s important to be self-critical, challenge preconceptions and sometimes it means accepting that beliefs may be wrong.

So how can researchers reduce these biases?

  • Be mindful to listen with an open mind when conducting user interviews. Make sure to remove all distractions from the room and take in everything they are saying.
  • Be curious. A common phrase in user research is ‘ask why five times’. When asking a question make sure to dig deeper into the answer with follow up questions, even if it feels dumb.
  • Vary the methods of research: a good mixture of qualitative and quantitative data from methods such as interviews, surveys, analytics and industry trends helps see the story from different angles.
  • Ensure you speak to a diverse range of people. Not everyone thinks the same and different people have different needs and challenges.
  • If you do find yourself having a clear idea or solution in your head, try to find arguments against it, pick it apart and see where it falls down. Also make sure you can trace the origin of the idea, it should be supported by the research so find it.
  • When planning, make sure to avoid leading questions. It’s always best to double check them with someone outside of the project who can be impartial. For example, asking “How prominently should search be displayed?” would be considered a leading question. Instead ask “What are the most important components of a homepage?”
  • Consider outsourcing the research phase of your project. This ensures your teams biases stay well away from the research. 

By not accepting and working to combat cognitive biases it’s likely that any web design project will result in a website that is centred around university rather than the student. In Higher Education the needs of the user are ever-changing. Universities are not only competing with each other but with other digital platforms. Services such as Netflix and Instagram set the expectations of prospective students and these expectations are high. It’s essential that research projects are all treated as separate entities and researchers must accept that the outcomes might be radically different from the last.

Thomas Evans is a User Experience Consultant for digital agency Squiz. A master at user experience design, Tom has worked with organisations such as UAL, William Hill and OFCOM to ensure their digital initiatives remain user centric.

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