How to avoid the ‘Forest for the Trees’ bias when you design

Summary: If you design something for your company, organization, or department or help influence the direction of a design, it regularly can become very difficult for you to separate yourself from the design. And chances are, you are not even aware of it most of the time! This is due to a psychological phenomenon of figure vs ground, or not being able to see the big picture because you are too close.

Identifying the problem

One possible answer as to why we lose objectivity when we create or contribute to a design is rooted in the Gestalt Psychology phenomenon of figure and ground:

The phenomenon of figure and ground in perception has been explored extensively by gestalt psychologists. A classic example is that of a picture that either appears to be a light colored chalice on a dark background, or two dark faces against a light background, depending on what aspect of the picture is focused on as ‘figure’ and what is perceived as ‘ground’. (see Figure 1)

Vase Faces" illustrating the "Figure-Ground"

Figure 1: The “Vase Faces” illustrating the “Figure-Ground” phenomenon. Is it a face or a vase?

The closer you get to an object (figure), the more blurred it becomes (ground). Figure/ground reminds us that perception is relative and not absolute.  Or the more time you spend in internal company meetings discussing a design, the more blurred your objectivity becomes.

It’s a symptom that is probably responsible for possibly 95% of poor usability design choices.

Let’s call it Heisenberg’s Rule of Design, after the legendary physicist who said:

The more precisely the position is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known in this instant, and vice versa. —Heisenberg, uncertainty paper, 1927

For UX purposes: The closer you are to a design, the less objective you become.

When knowing “too much” can bias you

  • Every designer goes through this process of becoming consumed by their design ideas and assumptions dictated by style, taste, or personal preference when creating the look and feel of an application.
  • Every developer experiences this when they try to “skin the UI”, code the GUI or add the User Interface to an application after a long day (or weeks) of coding.
  • Every marketer experiences this when he or she tries to map new features, new ideas, new ways to engage the customer to the functionality requirements.
  • Every business analyst experiences this when he or she tries to specify requirements based on business processes, system responses, and user/group workflow.
  • Every VP or CEO experiences this when he or she drops in on the design team and projects the original vision, strategic direction, or business needs onto the design (mixed in with a little personal preference or, as Jeroen van Erp put it at a Design and Emotion conference, design can be directed by “the CEO’s wife”).

To figure out how our perception blinds us, let’s look at the stages of this “Forest for the Trees Syndrome”…

The Stages of “Forest for the Trees” Syndrome

 “Forest for the Trees” means you loose sight of seeing the “big picture” in something, because you are too close to the details.

Stage 1: Attached to the design

During this stage, you become attached to your design. This is typically caused by spending too much time with the design and refinements. In a sense, the design becomes a part of you, and you necessarily feel like defending it because it makes sense to you.

Motto: “I don’t see anything wrong with it”.
Action: Argue for the design.

Stage 2: Blinded by the design

During this stage you are so exposed to the design (company objectives, brand, issues, constraints, history) that you can’t even see that you are biased. Having argued for the design, you are now completely bought into it and are completely blinded from any other information.

Motto: “This is the only way to go”.
Action: Fight for the design.

Stage 3: Hypnotized by the design

During this stage, you are so far gone the design has become second nature- like the furniture in your office. You don’t question, you don’t even think about it or feel that anything is wrong. You can’t look at the design with a fresh set of eyes either because you are too patterned from over exposure or by now it seems perfectly fine or justified.

Motto: “This way seems normal”.
Action: See any criticism as unfounded and unfair.

Is there a light at the end of this tunnel, or are we stuck with tunnel vision?

The field of Human Computer Interaction (HCI) where Usability, Information Architecture, and Human Centered Design derive represents a way out. HCD combines a set of methods, techniques, and approaches that creates more objectivity in design by leveraging user data, user needs, user issues, user insights, and user advocacy. User-centered design is a methodology (popularized by Donald Norman e.g. see his early book User Centered System Design) that triangulates technology (systems) and marketing (features) centered approaches with an outside look at what the user wants and needs, expectations, desires, and requirements.

The Human Centered Design approach (an industry standard and ISO standard) provides several techniques to help “see the forest for the trees”. From a usability standpoint, the forest is the user group. The trees are the features that sit between the application architecture and the user.

What does User-Centered Design do that helps bring more objectivity to a design: (or at least ways we have found to help our clients at Experience Dynamics:

  • Usability reviews: Analyzing a design from the perspective of users and their tasks with best practices (evidence-based)
    Outcome: Advocate for user needs around confusing, annoying, frustrating, or difficult-to-use design elements in order to make better decisions about the direction of the user experience.
  • Usability testing: Having customers assess a design to detect confusion points and uncover areas of the design that mismatch their expectations.
    Outcome: Bring user verbatim feedback from usability testing data directly to the design room.
  • Field Studies: Going to the user’s natural environment and observing their world: seeing, hearing, and feeling what they think, want, need…and learning how they construct and prioritize experiences.
    Outcome: Incorporate research-based customer personas into the interaction design by seeing how Persona “X” or Persona “Y” will use the design.

Is Human Centered Design a guarantee to prevent seeing the forest for the trees?

No. Especially not with your own design. That is what motivated me to share this with you. Every time I work on a design for my own company (Experience Dynamics) I run into “Heisenberg’s Rule of Design” or “Forest for the Trees Syndrome”. At this point, I know it’s:

  • Time for a second opinion
  • Time to get user feedback
  • Time for a break
  • Time to advocate for the user
  • Time to stop seeing trees and get back to the forest

Best Wishes,
Frank Spillers, MS

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