How to take biased perceptions into account when designing?

Following design guidelines is not at straightforward as following a cooking recipe. Design rules often describe goals rather than actions  and its exact meaning and applicability to specific design situation is open to interpretation.

What we perceive is not an accurate reflection of our environment. It is biases by a least three factors:

  1. Past experience
  2. Current context (present)
  3. Future goals

Much of our lives are spent in familiar situations: our homes, our routes from school or work, neighborhoods, parks, restaurants, etc. Repeated exposure to each type of situation builds a pattern in our minds of what to expect to see there. These perceptual patterns, which some researchers call frames, include the objects or events that are usually encountered in that situation.

What do you see if I say the word home?

Based on your experience with homes reveals an specific home. In addition to having a pattern for your home your brain has one for homes in general. It biases your perception of all homes, familiar and new.  In a bathroom, you’d expect to see a toilet and a sink. Mental frames for situations bias our perception to see the objects and events expected in each situation.

Another way we experience biases perception is through habitation which is repeated exposure to what it is highly familiar, for instance, the people you have to meet everyday, the tone of your alarm, an ad on a website, just to name a few.

We experience habituation in computer usage when the same “Are you sure?”confirmation messages appear again and again. People initially notice them but as it keeps popping out the user might get tired and click without even bothering to read them.

Habituation is also a factor of a recent phenomenon labeled as  “social media burnout,” “Facebook vacations” or “social media fatigue” because its users sooner or later get tired of wasting time reading tweets about every little thing that their “friends” do or see.

How to take biased perception into account when designing ?

Avoid ambiguous information displays, and test your design to verify that all users interpret the display in the same way. if it is unavoidable, either rely on standards or conventions to resolve it.

For example, computer displays often shade buttons and text fields to make them look raised in relation to the background surface and its location is assumed to be on the top.


Be consistent placing information and controls in consistent locations. Controls and data displays that serve the same function on different pages should be placed in the exact same position and keeping the same color, text fonts, shading and so on. This consistency will allow users to spot and recognize them quickly.

Understand the goals users wants to achieve by using your system. Realize that user goals might vary and their goals strongly influence what they perceive. Ensure that at every point in an interaction, the information user’s need is available and maps to a possible user’s goal, so users will notice and use the information.