Your Biases are Killing Your Product

By August 2, 2015Boomcast Blog

We all know that one of the top failures of startup founders and business leaders alike is the myth of the “killer idea”. It’s the belief that we have the right idea in the moment, as well as all the reasons why it is the right idea. Experience, knowledge, and emotions create a common confirmation bias, leading to a false sense of reality and validation, well before the idea has been tested.

Being aware of this bias, and setting ourselves up to think and approach business challenges differently, reduces stress, makes it a little easier to fail AND builds better outcomes for our customers, like we intended in the first place.

Confirmation bias is our natural tendency to favor information that confirms our beliefs or hypotheses. Now, this is a real problem, especially if you are trying to decide what to build next in your product. No one making product direction decisions wants to be wrong, or told that a feature is confusing or unusable. So, we artfully design stories and approaches that confirm that we actually were the smartest person in the room. I’m pretty sure that doesn’t help build better products for customers or your bottom line.

Unfortunately, we ALL fall victim to confirmation bias. Being wrong sucks! But it doesn’t build better products. There are a few very common “bias” mistakes I’ve seen and a few strategies for refocusing on what’s more important (and not that you are right every time).

Bias #1: You believe you can be a proxy for what your customer needs
Simply, no. Unfortunately, when you have been in one market for long enough you start thinking you are an “expert” on your customer and can easily speak for them. But I think we can all agree that we have often shipped what they asked for and not seen the outcomes we expected. There are so many nuances to our customers. They are people, with motivations that challenge our assumptions in ways we probably haven’t accounted for.

Why are they asking for that feature? What problem are they actually trying to solve? Do you really know what problem your are solving or outcome you are hoping to give to the customer? Not the feature. The outcome.

Bias Fix: Conduct problem interviews focused on validating the problem you are solving. Forget the feature, forget being right about what they want and for a minute just learn a little about them, their job, and how building their requested feature might actually solve a problem or might actually not solve their problem. Now you’ve got an insight that can build some awesome new features.

Bias #2: You know how to solve the problem
Ok, so maybe you understand the problem now, but did you jump straight to your favorite solution? Most go right to full-feature design without considering that they are making the biggest assumption of all, which is that your idea actually solves the problem in the best way. Every single idea, feature and enhancement comes with the assumption that it solves the customer problem and creates a better experience.

Listen in your next product meeting, and pay attention to the amount of invalidated validation and facts based on big assumptions that people throw around to justify why a feature should be built, or be the biggest priority.

Bias Fix: Start by accepting and actually, consciously, noticing that every new feature idea is an assumption, and that there are many ways to solve a validated customer problem. Show some solutions to your customers. See what they think.

Bias #3: You value winning the debates about what’s most important
Remember the last time you were in an argument about how a feature should work, look or feel? Yeah, it turns out that you were both right, and you were both wrong. The worst part is that most pick a direction based on the best debater or the voice of power. Then, they leave it to luck that the best debater equals the best customer outcome. This isn’t a good way to choose how to build something. As it happens, collaboration is a great thing. Winning your point shouldn’t make you feel better about the product direction.

Bias Fix: When people have different ideas of how something might solve a problem, then save the debate and set up an experiment instead. In teams that have already made this shift, very quickly into the debate, someone usually changes the direction of the conversation by simply asking, “They are both interesting ideas, how could we test this?” or some variation on suggesting a way to see how their customers will actually behave instead of convincing ourselves one way or the other. Convince yourself with some data.

Making product decisions is easier when you leave it to a source of one (you), but it’s a pretty risky strategy. As my good friend Aquiles once tweeted, “Don’t be so presumptive, everything is an assumption.”

So, start checking your confirmation bias at the door and believing in strategies that turn your assumptions into firmer validations and better customer outcomes.

Erin brings design thinking, customer development and Innovation Lab approaches to teams as a collaborator, mentor and partner. You can follow Erin at @ErinStadler.