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Bias in design

Why all design is flawed when you’re looking for magic

I often get asked about bias in design. My answer:

All design is flawed. But buried in each action, each small step that we take and every single decision — even when our best intentions are biased, mis-directed, or even driven by individual ego — is the ability to make magic happen.

I think bias in design is okay as long as it’s part of an accountable design process.

Some more context.

Working in government I’ve met some very knowledgable policy specialists, social phycologists, analysts and researchers who have all questioned the types of user centred design processes that I openly promote and encourage. This is usually rooted in a traditional policy world of government driven by the desire to make ‘evidence-based’ decisions supported by high levels of certainty.

In reality, any sense of progress in a design process happens because we learn by doing. It’s the willingness to be right or wrong as the result of being willing to do something in the first place.

This is creativity. It’s the combination of ideas and experiments.

Evidence-based decisions are still subjective, but policy teams simply look to reduce risk through detailed analysis and the introduction of academic rigour and the application of social science. I’m not convinced this is effective beyond making small improvements to how things already work.

Making magic

Ideas are magic. They’re how we re-invent things. Every so often I see a team find an idea that enables them to make a leap to something completely new that solves a problem in a unique or a previously unimaginable way.

In this respect, design is an active process of doing and learning. It starts with ideas and its success can then, and only then, be analysed as a way of gradually working to improve the outcomes it supports and works towards.

I’ve always been fascinated by how good human-centred research processes can actually unlock a creative process. Design research is as much about creating possibilities and helping us generate new ideas as it is about having a set of rigorously tested answers to a problem. Research in a design process is most effective when framing and opening up the next set of possibilities for a team to work with.

I believe that bias in design is okay when it generates ideas. Those ideas can be developed and evaluated for their suitability. They help us learn more quickly what will work and how to adapt our thinking.

Design is how we unlock the unexplored, the alternative and the next intuitive leap that we need to take, while helping us to be creative about how we get there.

Bias, individual opinions and interpretation are things we have to accept as part of unlocking that process.

This blog post is also published on Medium.

Ben Holliday is an experienced design leader, writer and speaker. This is his blog (started in 2005). You can follow all of Ben's blog posts by subscribing to the RSS feed, or follow him on Twitter for more regular updates.