Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The Malkovich Bias

Over the years I've noticed that just about everyone believes that everyone else uses the web as they do.

People who skim believe everyone else does too. People who skip over ads can't believe anyone looks at, or even clicks on them. People who search can't believe others don't.

It's such an irrational behavior that psychologists should add it to their known list of cognitive biases. I suggest they call it the Malkovich Bias - and define it as "the tendency to believe that everyone uses the web as you do."

The Malkovich Bias is especially prevalent in design and product development processes. It's usually an ugly and frustrating experience. Odds are good that you and your teammates don't use the web in the same way. So you've had conversations like...

"That needs to go above the fold because no one scrolls."

"That's nonsense. People scroll all the time. I do it on Google all the time."

"You might, but 78% of people don't."
(I've actually seen someone reference made up stats on numerous occasions).

Rationally we can all accept that people are different and their approaches to the web differ, but that rational thought can be super tough to internalize.

Which is why I love usability testing. Much like traveling in a foreign country, we often witness behavior so counter to our own, that it makes us question our own dogmas. Similarly watching someone use the web in the exact opposite way we do, confronts and shakes our Malcovich Bias.

In a team setting, usability testing shakes the Malkovich Bias in profound ways. User testing shifts the debate. If a team witnesses a user struggle through something, everyone has a shared experience and understanding of that user's experience which serves as the starting point of the discussion and the eventual solution.


Philonski said...

That's a great metaphor - I'm going to try to crowbar it into my PhD thesis somewhere... Cheers!


Anonymous said...

Good point! I would not limit this to just the web, though. Take a look at a multi-use trail in any metro area--the cyclists, walkers and runners all assume that everyone is going the same speed they are and has the same concerns.

Walkers swerve and stop suddenly because they think everyone else is walking and can easily react in time.

Cyclists assume everyone else will make split-second reactions as though they're going 15-20 mph.

It's human nature and something to watch out for, you're right. But we do it everywhere, not just online.

Unknown said...

I'm really liking your blog.

Similar to the "Malkovich Bias" is the "Projection Bias" on this article: http://io9.com/5974468/the-most-common-cognitive-biases-that-prevent-you-from-being-rational

And one of my favourite quotes seems similar in substance: "Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world". --Arthur Schopenhauer