There have been many times over the past 18 months where I have thought to myself “what the hell am I doing” or “how did I get here”? Those moments have been daunting as well as opportunities for reflection. When I think to the different research and creative projects I have done over the years, there has always been an interest in seeking to understand people’s engagement with physical objects and social spaces.

My very first research paper was about mobility in pubic spaces, using shopping malls as examples of public spaces which limit mobility and access for a range of people. In those days, there were turnstiles into grocery stores, creating barriers for people with wheelchairs, prams and other mobility aids. This paper was very much a reflection of my own experience as a new parent, attempting to negotiate public spaces with a small baby and a stroller. It would seem that this is still very much an issue for urban design.

From spaces to objects – the focus on souvenirs in my Masters of Arts was essentially an analysis of the relationships people have with souvenirs and their symbolic power as objects that are tied to a context of place. The research literature for my thesis explored nostalgia, fetishism, commodity fetishism as all being relative to the object-human relationship.

This interest in social behaviours was also a thread in my PhD as the focus was on analysing how ‘real space’ was influencing social change. I was motivated to further explore the importance how online communities be built with access and equity in mind – as social and creative spaces.

These days, the issue of accessibility is not so obscure. Back 15 years ago there was a lack of understanding about how cyberspace needed to be a space for everyone and that design needed to reflect that need. This primary interest in behaviour did create some problems with my topic and where it was situated terms of the discipline. The aesthetic focus of ‘new media’ had not matured to understand the importance of usability design and accessibility when designing interfaces. Jacob Nielsen’s and Steve Krug’s ideas had only just started to catch on.

User Centred Design
This emerging focus on users needs required an increased understanding of how our cognition and mental processes informed how we engage with technology as users. And although UCD is commonly linked to web design and interface design, it has it roots in Human Centred Design and Ergonomics. The principles of UCD are about making it easy for the user, having the right amount of information and also creating a product which provides a memorable experience as well as a potential call to action. To do this effectively, it is important to understand how we process information and what leads us to make decisions.

UCD as a method is increasingly becoming part of the toolkit for policy design, in particular in the context of Public Sector Innovation and the digital transformation agenda of governments. The application of design in public sector innovation is resulting in a new emerging practice in which design approaches are used to design and implement public services, products, policies and procedures across domains such as housing, employment, health, crime prevention, and education (van der Bijl-Brouwer, Kaldor, Watson, & Hillen, 2015).

The focus on the user as design participator/ co-designer can potentially help to reduce the biases that might be informing a policy or social issue. These cognitive biases are a reflection of our perspective – the frame in which we see the world.

The Cognitive Bias article on Wikipedia states that:

A cognitive bias is a systematic pattern of deviation from norm or rationality in judgment.[1] Individuals create their own “subjective social reality” from their perception of the input. An individual’s construction of social reality, not the objective input, may dictate their behaviour in the social world.[2] Thus, cognitive biases may sometimes lead to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment, illogical interpretation, or what is broadly called irrationality.[3][4][5]

Social (be it physical or virtual) bias can significantly impact on the way objects, spaces and meaningful interactions can be designed. Our human brains are complex and the way we process and store information is affected by the biases we have. These biases can lead to decisions that might not adequately represent the needs of users / citizens.

What is bias?
This Cognitive Bias map shows the complexity of human bias and how these biases inform social action. Buster Benson (no relation) came up with the list and the groupings after much frustration at trying to grapple with the topic of cognitive bias in Wikipedia.

188 cognitive biases, designed by John Manoogian III (jm3) and organized by Buster Benson in the Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet.
188 cognitive biases, designed by John Manoogian III (jm3) and organized by Buster Benson in the Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet.

Buster presents four areas where biases impact our decision-making, these being: information overload, lack of meaning, the need to act fast, and how to know what needs to be remembered for later. Benson call these the “four problems with the world.” Does any of this sound familiar? It did to me 🙂

He goes on to say:

By keeping the four problems with the world and the four consequences of our brain’s strategy to solve them, the availability heuristic (and, specifically, the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon) will insure that we notice our own biases more often.

Why is bias an issue? Firstly, we bring our biases, conscious and subconscious, to every decision we make. This can present an issue in the context of designing programs to influence decision-making, for example public policy interventions aiming to change citizen behaviour.

David Donaldson asks in Making better decisions: tackling the biases we all hold that:

Should government projects conduct pre-mortems to avoid optimism bias? Are you ignoring that evidence that conflicts with your own beliefs?


Donaldson’s article looks at some of the findings into the recent Using behavioural science to improve how governments make decisions report put out by the UK think tank the Institute for Government. Some of the biases identified which derail policy decision-making included: Allocation of attention, Framing, Confirmation bias, Group reinforcement, Inter-group opposition, Illusion of similarity, Optimism bias, and Illusion of control.

The suggestion of a pre-mortem could take many forms, starting with defining what are the assumptions being made about the problem and testing those assumptions early. Donaldson puts forward some very good questions which are worth considering, particularly in the earliest stages of designing policy and program interventions.

There is a real danger for service and policy designers that bias will impact the design to the extent that it is not effective, because of a lack of a detailed understanding of the needs to the people being impacted by the policy measure.

Now this is not to say that the users are without bias. But the bias of users can be helpful. Whatever biases the users have can aid in understanding where there may be potential barriers to the development of the policy/tool/intervention.

Democratic design needs to ensure that bias is considered and actively addressed as part of the design process. Policy makers are starting to realise that their own biases also have an impact on policy design, making it more important to bring in other actors – in particular from different disciplines and cultures and localities. Most importantly finding user groups that are going to be affected by the intervention must be considered as an absolute.

Krug, S. (2000). Don’t make me think!: A common sense approach to Web usability. Indianapolis, Ind: New Riders

Nielsen, J. (1995). 10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design,

van der Bijl-Brouwer, M., Kaldor, L., Watson, N.R., & Hillen, V. (2015). Supporting the emerging practice of public sector design innovation. Paper presented at IASDR2015 Interplay, Brisbane, Australia.

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