Product Managers (PM) are constantly receiving influx of information from diverse sources and making decisions in flight and on the toes. Decisions may be related to prioritisation, planning sprints, product roadmap, interpretation of metrics, diagnosing user churn, or conjuring up strategy for user adoption. They also have to work with people from different functional teams and ensure that all are aligned with the singular vision enunciated by her.
In so doing, it is natural to inadvertently use previously formed (or ill-formed) conclusions or assumptions to arrive at decisions that endorse your previously held convictions. This is called Cognitive Bias. It is mind’s way of using short-cuts to arrive at decisions using previously held assumptions or mental models. Say, every time someone uses the word teacher, you may imagine a woman because in your school, majority of your teachers were women. For me, a nurse invariably implies a woman! Imagine if I were to assume so and design skirts for nurses and were to receive order from a hospital for 100 pants and shirts for male nurses!
Cognitive biases lead us astray, trick us into adopting a distorted world view and make us believe in half-truths and lies as truths. As a PM, you ought to guard against these biases segueing into your decision making lest your decisions lead you and your company up the garden path!
Although I don’t present below an exhaustive list of all biases known in Cognitive Psychology, the following cognitive biases are commonly experienced by us who are in roles of decision making and we need to develop awareness so that we are not trapped in their snare.
Affinity Bias is when you assume that people think and interpret the same way as you do. When you begin to describe a problem, requirement, solution or design, you assume that your lingo, style and tenor is perceived by the recipient just as you intended to do. Here goes an piquant example of it 🙂
Affinity Bias also relates to our unconscious propensity to be with and favour those who are like us. They make us feel comfortable and on them you rely which gradually leads to formation of an inner circle, a coterie, that begins to guide your decisions. You use this coterie to seek assurance and endorsement for your decisions. But gradually it leads to formation of hardened set of viewpoints that are hard to shrug off and nursing an illusion that you and your tribe are right. Thus, you lose the focus away from the customer, market and the competition.
If you and your inner circle happens to be successful with this groupism, this may lead to a very toxic culture where disagreement is quelled and constructive criticism is met with career-sabotaging viciousness.
To overcome affinity bias, you must continuously watch if you are being guided by a closed set of people who always endorse your views either out of fear, gain, submission to authority or excessive self-belief. Learn to question what you are told and never rely on a closed set of people. Seek to know your customer very intimately and follow the process of Build-Measure-Learn as enunciated by Eric Ries in his seminal book The Lean Startup. Cultivate the knack to wear your customers’ shoes and glasses. We are not exhorting you to not discuss with your team but do not make the viewpoints of your inner circle to be the sole basis of decision. Expand your outreach to people across the board and seek their view.
When while decision making, you inadvertently seek confirmation of your previously formed assumptions and beliefs, you are in the trap of Confirmation bias. You seek, interpret and remember information that substantiates previously held beliefs. Also, you may be inclined to co-relate events in ways unsubstantiated by data and metrics. In order to wriggle out of Confirmation bias, ensure you take not axioms of your mental model for-granted. Instead always re-evaluate your first principles from where you operate. Our mind often thinks in primitive building blocks: our observations, assumptions, prejudices, facts as we analyse a problem and structure a solution. The solution to all manners of biases to become aware of your very process of thinking. This will reveal to you those mental models that you use while thinking and will help you re-evaluate if they indeed hold true in the context of the problem you are solving.
Secondly always use clearly defined metrics in decision making, even if something you have taken for-granted as true. Be rigorous is defining your success and control metrics. Also, look at success indicating metrics with sceptisism whether they are resulting from a covert “happy coincidence”. Say, your competitor’s website was down for few hours and your visitor count hence increased dramatically. In such a case, your happy metrics are hiding something rather than reveal.
Third, favour scepticism/refutation over confirmation. Err on the side of doubt than belief. Value disagreement over conformance. Seek to get your idea refuted. And then use metrics and data to accept or absolve the doubt.
Fourth, involve others in decision making – the product marketing manager, Sales, Marketing, Engineering, or your boss. When you build a culture of sharing, collaboration and transparency in decision making, you naturally lend your beliefs to be examined by many eyes who may not be as biased as you are. When you encourage culture where people are comfortable questioning you and take criticism constructively, you will enhance chances of bringing biases to light and surmounting them.
Fifth, in decision making, always voice your assumptions. And in so doing, you may take yourself by surprise that you seem to have a wrongful basis of judgement.
To form your decision based on events that have passed a criteria and ignore that failed leads to Survivorship bias. If as a PM, your metrics are astounding, you may be fooled to believe that users are happily engaged with your product. But a significantly good number of prospects may be disenchanted with your product and your high success masks their presence and opinions. If you look at users or events that pass a certain criteria and ignore the rest, you lose an opportunity to widen the user base of your product, ignore your product’s pitfalls, and lose the ability to improve it. Our target audience is not only those who are our customers. Our target market is those people whose problem our product solves. We need to expand our field of vision to look at all prospects rather than those who make it through to our product.
To overcome Survivorship bias, above all, seek those users who have not been using your product. Why? Was your product not relevant to them? Why? Did your assumption about the personae you wish to address ignore some of their traits that made your team overlook their constraints?
For instance, if you are making a product that uses voice commands in English to search for fashion wear, have you accounted for non-native English speakers’ accent? If not, you have missed a massive bulk of customer base across Europe! Does your mobile app run well only on high performance smartphone and the users using low to medium range smartphones drop off finding your user interface slow and heavy!
Study each persona and the context in which it uses your product. Gather feedback from those who are unhappy with or indifferent to your product. Never rely solely on qualitative data. Don’t rest only on quantitative data either. Use the mix of both. Always ask “what if”? What if my voice-over interface product that is chiefly used by travellers is used in heavy noise areas? What if my voice-over accent is not understandable to non-native English speakers.
Understand the contexts in which your product is used. Do people use it while commuting in noisy environs? Or from silence of their household? Understanding the context of every persona, knowing your customer keenly and imagining their user journeys, will ensure that you minimise your biases.
It is human to be biased and we all carry ours. But overcoming them begins with their awareness. Always wear glasses of your customers, question your happy metrics, and seek those who have tarried away from your product. They are the useful carriers of information about your product and may even be instrumental in dismantling it. For a competitor may come and address those very pitfalls which took your critics, your non-customers away from you.
Don’t become a prisoner of your own ideas. Constantly go out and seek your customer. Question your beliefs by constantly validating them. For you are making the product not for yourself, but for the users.