Master the dark force of cognitive biases during the product discovery

In product discovery, our minds can sometimes be our worst enemy. Cognitive biases, subtle and often unnoticed distortions in our thinking, can lead us astray and make us base our decisions on flawed perceptions instead of objective reality. To truly excel in product discovery, we must recognise their potential influence on our thinking.

In this blog post, we're delving into the fascinating topic of cognitive biases in product discovery and how to master those dark forces.

We will cover the following topics:

  • What are cognitive biases? What are the most common cognitive biases?
  • Why being aware of cognitive biases is key in product discovery?
  • How cognitive biases influence product manager's decisions - a practical example
  • Practical framework to prevent biases from controlling your decisions in product discovery
  • Final thoughts

So, stay tuned and read on!

What are cognitive biases?

“The normal state of your mind is that you have intuitive feelings and opinions about almost everything that comes your way. You like or dislike people long before you know much about them; you trust or distrust strangers without knowing why; you feel that an enterprise is bound to succeed without analyzing it.”

-Daniel Kahneman, in the book “Thinking Fast and Slow.”

When first learning about cognitive biases, many people deny they are affected. Many of us consider ourselves to be intelligent and logical individuals. So, how can our beliefs persist even when presented with concrete evidence to the contrary?

Our brains constantly receive an overwhelming amount of information from different sources like people, media, and personal experiences. To manage this, our minds create cognitive shortcuts and models to encode, store, and recall the information. Not all of these mental shortcuts are useful, and some may even restrict our cognitive abilities. This is due to our natural craving for cognitive consistency.

There are as many as 175 identified cognitive biases, Haselton MG, Nettle D, Andrews PW (2005). "The evolution of cognitive bias".

Let's take a look at a few of the most common ones:

Confirmation Bias: Have you ever noticed that when you're considering a purchase, you tend to seek reviews of the product or service? Then, you come across a majority of negative reviews. After reading all the negative comments, you still focus on the positive ones and purchase. This is known as confirmation bias, where we tend to pay more attention to evidence that supports our beliefs and overlook evidence that contradicts them.

Availability Heuristic: You watch a lot of news stories about aeroplane crashes. When booking a flight, you feel very nervous and consider taking a bus instead, even though, statistically speaking, flying is much safer than bus travel. This is the availability heuristic: our minds tend to think that events that come easily to mind (like the dramatic plane crashes you saw on the news) are more common than they are.

Anchoring Bias: Let's say you're shopping for a used car. The first car you look at is priced at 15,000 euros. After that, all vehicles priced below 15,000 seem like a fair deal, even if they're overpriced according to the market value. This is anchoring bias: we rely heavily on the first piece of information (the "anchor") we receive when making decisions.

Fundamental Attribution Error: You're driving, and someone cuts you off. You instantly think of the other driver as irresponsible or thoughtless without considering potential external factors, such as they might be running to the hospital or trying to bypass an obstacle on the road. This is the fundamental attribution error: we tend to attribute others' actions to their personality or character rather than considering external circumstances.

Commitment Bias: Imagine you buy a ticket to a movie that has received good reviews. Halfway through the film, you realize you're not enjoying it. Despite feeling bored and uninterested, you decide to stay and watch the entire movie simply because you've already paid for the ticket. You think, "I've already invested my money, so I might as well get my money's worth."

In this scenario, the commitment bias is staying for the entire movie based on the initial commitment (buying the ticket), even though the logical choice might be to leave and use the remaining time more productively or enjoyably elsewhere.

Why being aware of cognitive biases is key in product discovery?

In the context of product discovery, product managers might unconsciously favour data or feedback that aligns with their initial product ideas or beliefs, potentially overlooking critical insights or alternative perspectives.

Our brains often develop a quick belief about a situation and then seek out information that bolsters that belief. This can lead to a skewed understanding of user needs or market demands.

For example, if a product manager believes a particular feature is essential based on user feedback, they might unconsciously prioritise data supporting this belief, ignoring contrary opinions.

Meanwhile, during product discovery, it's crucial to gather a diverse range of insights and feedback. Falling prey to biases can lead to a narrow perspective, potentially missing out on innovative solutions or misjudging user needs.

Biased decision-making can also impact resource allocation, feature prioritisation, and stakeholder communication. For instance, over-relying on data that supports a pre-existing belief can lead to investing resources in features that might not resonate with the broader user base.

How cognitive biases influence product manager's decisions - an example

It's not hard to find examples of how cognitive bias can significantly shape our decisions.

Let's take a look at Tom's story.

Tom was hired as a new product manager for SparkTech, an up-and-coming tech firm focusing on AI-driven tools for content creators. Upon joining, he was assigned to lead product discovery for a new tool tailored for video creators.

Choice 1: Tom started with a survey sent to the company’s existing user base to gauge pain points and understand needs.

Reflection: the Availability Heuristic influenced surveying the existing user base first. Tom relied on the immediate information and users available rather than reaching out to a broader and potentially more representative sample of video creators.

Choice 2: when presented with initial survey results, Tom noticed a few high demands for “better video stabilization” and latched onto that as the primary feature. He gave less consideration to repeated requests like “smart editing options”.

Reflection: this is a clear case of Anchoring Bias. Tom gave disproportionate weight to the first piece of information (video stabilization) he received and used it as a reference point for subsequent decisions.

Choice 3: Tom's team had a brainstorming session. Sarah, a team member was vocal about certain features she believed were essential. Tom decided to prioritize her input heavily.

Reflection: Tom fell for the Fundamental Attribution Error. He thought Sarah was particularly knowledgeable, attributing her strong opinions to expertise rather than considering external factors like her past experiences or potential personal biases.

Choice 4: The team ran user testing sessions after months of development. While feedback was varied, Tom focused on the points that affirmed his initial beliefs about video stabilization, often dismissing feedback that did not align with his vision.

Reflection: This showcases Confirmation Bias. Tom was more attentive to feedback confirming his beliefs and downplayed or overlooked contrary evidence.

Choice 5: As development progressed, some engineering challenges arose with the stabilization feature. Instead of considering alternative features or solutions, Tom doubled down, investing even more resources.

Reflection: Tom was influenced by Commitment Bias. Having invested time and resources into the video stabilization feature, he felt committed to seeing it through, even in the face of complications.

Naturally, this story is an oversimplification, and numerous other decisions come into play in real-life scenarios. We wanted to provide a simplified illustration of how one's biases can impact many situations, following one after another, even if they believe they are supporting their actions with data.

Can you prevent biases from controlling your decisions?

Yes, it is possible to avoid your decisions being controlled by cognitive biases.

Understanding that cognitive biases exist is the first step. Unfortunately, this alone is not sufficient.

Acknowledging and overcoming biases in our daily decision-making takes a deliberate effort. Not only should we recognise their presence, but we should also take active steps to combat them.

A helpful approach to tackle this is to establish a decision-making process. Chip and Dan Heath, authors of "Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Your Life and Work," believe that the decision-making process is more crucial than the analysis itself.

Why follow a process? Simply acknowledging our flaws is not sufficient to address them. Just like knowing your poor eyesight doesn't improve your vision, we must take action to improve ourselves.

Great news: you don’t have to invent a process; Chip and Dan Heath already did it for you by defining the WRAP decision making process!

Improve your decision-making process with the WRAP Process

This framework can assist you in establishing a well-defined process for decision-making and improving your decision-making abilities.

It offers valuable guidance for creating a systematic process. Additionally, we will provide other vital resources to support unbiased decision-making and enhance your understanding.

WRAP is an acronym for:

  • Widen your options
  • Reality test your assumptions
  • Attain distance before deciding
  • Prepare to be wrong

Widen your options

Avoid narrow framing and consider multiple options before making a decision.

💡 Remember:

  • Be suspicious of ‘whether or not’ questions.
  • These typically reflect a false paradox and neglect the big picture
  • For instance, ‘Should I choose x feature or y’ is a ‘whether or not’ question; perhaps the better question is ‘How can I effectively solve my user's problem?’
  • Raise the alarm when presented with only one option and a ‘whether or not’ question.
  • Always consider the opportunity cost of any decision.
  • Instead of fixating on a single product feature or solution, brainstorm multiple potential features or solutions that could address the user's needs.
  • Look at what competitors are doing and consider if there are aspects that can be adapted or improved upon for your product.
  • Engage with different teams (e.g., marketing, sales, engineering) to gather diverse perspectives and ideas.
  • Ask yourself: “What would I do if neither of the ‘whether or not’ options were possible”?
  • Beware of false options that appear to widen the frame but force an option

In product management world, we believe in falling in love with the problem, not the solution. It's important to keep exploring different options until you find one that you genuinely love, not just settle for the first one that comes your way.

After falling in love with the problem, you should at least fall in love twice with solution. Otherwise, continue looking for other options addressing the customer's problem and need.

We cannot mention this point without highlighting another great way to help you widen your options and not get stuck on only one solution. You’ve probably guessed it - that’s the Opportunity Solution Tree method by Teresa Torres. OTS allow for visualising and charting the most effective path towards a desired outcome. Let’s take a look at it.

  • Outcomes: Product managers should define the desired outcomes before diving into solutions—opportunities for solutions and hypotheses derived from product outcomes that drive business outcomes.
  • Solutions: This is where the "Widen Your Options" principle comes into play. Instead of jumping to the first solution that comes to mind, product managers should brainstorm and consider multiple potential solutions that could achieve the desired outcomes.
  • Tests: Product managers should design experiments or tests to validate potential solutions before committing to a particular solution. This iterative approach ensures the chosen solution is grounded in evidence and user feedback.

Both OST and ‘Widen your options’ emphasize the importance of not committing to a single solution. By considering multiple alternatives, product managers can ensure they choose the best solution that aligns with user needs and business objectives.

Reality test your assumptions

We seek information that supports our beliefs and assumptions. Instead, you should challenge assumptions and gather information from various sources to validate decisions.

💡 Remember:

  • Conduct user interviews, surveys, and usability tests to validate new features or solutions' potential value and feasibility.
  • Create low-fidelity prototypes to test and iterate on product ideas before full development.
  • Analyse user behaviour data to understand how users interact with the current product and where improvements can be made.
  • Seek additional data:
  • talk to other people facing similar problems, especially those with prior experience and opposing views
  • ask hard, specific questions, e.g. “What are the problems with this?” rather than “What can you tell me about this?” + the why multiple times
  • Force yourself to consider information other than that which confirms our biases
  • “what information would I need to change my mind?”
  • Run ‘experiments’
  • conduct a pilot, shadow someone, perform ‘as if’ the decision had already been made
  • Play the ‘devil’s advocate’ and encourage others to do the same
  • if everyone agrees, tell them ‘the decision will be deferred until a further meeting to provide time for the team to develop disagreement.’

Attain distance before deciding

Aim to gain a better perspective or view of the problem before deciding. Detachment is required to disconnect from emotions in the decision-making process.

💡 Remember:

  • Ask yourself: ‘what would my successor do if I wasn’t here?’
  • Before finalizing a decision, gather feedback from key stakeholders to ensure alignment with business objectives.
  • Ensure that the product decisions align with the long-term product vision and strategy.
  • Before committing to a major feature or change, take a moment to reflect on the potential implications and whether it's the right move.

Prepare to be wrong

How many times did you think you would solve the problem on the first attempt, and it didn’t work out?

According to Marty Cagan, half of our product ideas won’t work. Ideas take several iterations to deliver expected business value. This links to the importance of product discovery.

It can be supported by research from the Standish group published in “Chaos” that between 64% and 75% of features are rarely or never used. Depending on the source between 75 and 90 of startups fail.

Many people believe in their plans and expect things to go according to their expectations. However, it's crucial to contemplate potential negative outcomes and the possibility of being wrong. This step is particularly important to avoid overconfidence.

💡 Remember:

  • Conduct a ‘premortem’
  • “let’s say that in 2 years, this decision turned out to be a disaster… what went wrong?”
  • Guard against hubris (excessive pride or self-confidence)
  • we are more likely to over-estimate our ability to predict the future if we have recently been lauded for our expertise and achievements or have a high degree of self-importance
  • Adopt an iterative approach to product development, allowing for adjustments based on user feedback and changing market conditions
  • Establish mechanisms to gather continuous feedback from users after a feature launch
  • Identify potential risks associated with new features or changes and develop mitigation strategies

Final Thoughts

Cognitive biases inevitably influence our perception and judgment daily.

When you bounce from tactic to tactic, it's easy to forget what you've learned and what decisions you need to make next.

Especially in the product discovery phase, as we encounter numerous unknowns. When biases enter the mix, they can drastically affect our strategic decisions.

It is essential to recognize biases and how they can affect our thoughts. By establishing a structured approach, a process, we can avoid being influenced by biases and make informed decisions.

By being aware of the impact cognitive biases have on us and adhering to a structured decision-making process, we greatly increase the likelihood that our choices are not influenced by biases.

How can we help you?

Do you feel we could be a match?
Then let’s have a first chat together!