Who, Me – Biased?

Seek Many Voices When Designing Solutions

Imagine you’re an instructional designer (ID) charged with creating e-learning to teach a work process. Which one of the following is the best way to determine the course content?

  1. Obtain relevant information from the subject matter expert (SME)
  2. Imagine what you would want to know yourself
  3. Observe an exemplary performer
  4. Rely on your expertise as a learning professional

Your first reaction might be that none of these options is the one best way; maybe an “all of the above” choice is needed here. You typically use all these tactics — well, at least A, B, and D if you’re short on time — and your experience tells you that’s enough to create a decent solution.

The Problem of Cognitive Bias

But is it enough? Recently I’ve been reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, the award-winning bestseller from 2011 on how humans make judgments and decisions. Based on a wealth of data from controlled experiments, it shows that we’re essentially lazy when it comes to thinking. We’ll take the easy, intuitive path over the effortful one almost every time — even when we’re sure we’re being objective and rational.

Cognitive bias ensues! This is on stark display in our current societal divide; both sides are certain they have the true facts, but bias from thinking “fast” (that is, defaulting to whatever matches our usual beliefs) affects all of us. Kahneman describes it as “our excessive confidence in what we believe we know, and our apparent inability to acknowledge the full extent of our ignorance and the uncertainty of the world we live in.” Although we might think we’re immune to such thinking, especially in our professional endeavors, we’re undoubtedly not.

Counteracting Bias with the Right Information

In our work as IDs, how can we compensate for cognitive bias? First, recognize that it exists in everyone, including learners, SMEs, and ourselves. Second, don’t accept fast, intuitive answers; slow down and gather the information needed to design an objective and effective solution. In doing so, remember the following:

  • DON’T rely on SMEs as the only source of truth.
  • DON’T use yourself as a stand-in for the learning audience.
  • DO obtain subject matter information from multiple sources (e.g., documentation, two or more SMEs, external websites, etc.)
  • DO execute a robust audience analysis: interview multiple performers at all experience levels and observe them at work.
  • DO test your solution design with the audience, then revise and retest until you’re confident it’s meeting their needs.

I know this prescription isn’t easy. To counteract our biases, as Kahneman writes, “…little can be achieved without a considerable investment of effort.”

Often Forgotten: The Audience Voice

The last two “DO”s in the preceding list deserve special attention. In the 40 years I’ve been developing learning solutions, I’ve done audience and task analyses infrequently and almost never any audience testing. Budget and schedule disincentives are the typical cause. Sound familiar? Pretty soon it becomes standard operating procedure to gloss over learner needs with a little lip service while hoping the SME can supply a decent facsimile.

But we must stop bypassing these steps. Learning experience design (LXD), with its emphasis on the human user, has become the next Big Thing in our industry. Let’s not just give it lip service, let’s really do it!

Want More?

Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. My blog post has barely scratched the surface of this fascinating book. Highly recommended read!

David Dylan Thomas: Expert in neutralizing cognitive bias through user experience design. Check out his website for links to articles, podcasts, and talks. A good one to start with is “Design for Cognitive Bias: Using Mental Shortcuts for Good Instead of Evil.”

Gestalt Principles for E-Learning,” by Eris Noren. Innovative Learning Group, May 2022. This blog post illustrates how visual design can take advantage of the “fast” thinking part of our brains.


Susan Fisher has worked in L&D for four decades as a tech writer, trainer, instructional designer, and learning consultant. Currently an independent consultant, she was on staff at Innovative Learning Group from 2007 to 2019.

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