Discovery Part III: Overcoming Bias

a woman hammering a screw

The Einstellung effect refers to a phenomenon in humans whereby prior solutions are applied to new problems even though a somewhat obvious better solution exists. This type of cognitive bias limits our ability to find optimal solutions that could be far more valuable. It is analogous to the law of the instrument described by Abraham Maslow: [“when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”]. For client research discussions to be most effective, this bias must be overcome.

I went into a client research call once with a colleague with high hopes. There was a real opportunity we were exploring and I was looking forward to the story this client would tell and how it would help us uncover solutions. But in the call, my colleague, with the best of intentions continually tried to steer the client to a solution she already had in mind. This idea had been used before and she hoped with a couple of simple tweaks we would solve another problem. She talked as much or more than the client and was clearly married to a solution before we even began the interview. Instead of ideating on possible solutions, she wanted to validate a specific idea and confirm her position. There’s nothing wrong with idea testing and validating, but this was the first client research call we had on the topic – far too early for validation! The trick is to “fall in love with the problem, not the solution” and avoid allowing bias to minimize the value of research.

And these biases are not limited to the interviewer. Often the subjects we’re interviewing have predispositions that subconsciously cause them to give bad information (again, with no mal intentions). An example Teresa Torres uses in Continuous Discovery is the story a researcher asking a client what she looks for when buying a pair of jeans. The client asserted that she shops for fit, that’s the only thing important. But when the researcher asked her to talk about the last time she purchased a pair of jeans, the client explained she bought them online because one of her favorite brands was on sale. This difference between her perception and her actual behavior fundamentally changes the opportunity and solution ideas. Here are some ideas to help.

  1. Elicit Stories – When you’re interviewing, ask subjects to tell you about a specific instance or time they did something. If you ask questions that are too direct, recollection of behaviors without context becomes marred with bias as these cognitive tendencies distort the truth.
  2. Focus on the Customer – The customer may not be interested in the thing you want to talk about. Your number one focus should be what are the needs and friction our client is experiencing. I had an interview once with a client prepared to talk about a specific solution idea to a problem I thought she would find interesting. Less than a minute into our call she proceeded to describe issues far away from the one I wanted to discuss. But by letting her continue, I was able to get some great opportunities unpacked rather than trying to shoehorn my agenda into our discussion.
  3. Temporal Prompts – Throughout the client’s story telling, ask questions like “Can you start from the beginning?” and “What happened next?”. This will guide them through a specific story.
  4. Watch out for Generalizations – People often will say things like “I always…” or “Every time this happens…”. Avoid the temptation to jump to a conclusion and gently guide the conversation to the story of specific instances where possible.
  5. Avoid Long Research Guides – Pages of specific thought out questions may sound like a good idea – you’re prepared and able to ensure that all of the time is used up. But this almost always takes us away from the story telling we’re looking for to produce the richest set of opportunities.

Relevance can be summed up as the ability to change overtime so that a need is met. Our client’s needs evolve and therefore so must our products. By consistently interviewing clients and listening we create the assets from which we can continuously innovate!

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