How to Make Better Decisions (by Understanding Cognitive Biases)


According to Wikipedia, a cognitive bias is:

the human tendency to make systematic errors in certain circumstances based on cognitive factors rather than evidence

There are certain things you can do as a web designer to make better decisions by recognizing and thinking twice about these cognitive biases. My attempt here will be to make you familiar some of these common decision mistakes and offer suggestions on how you can avoid them.

Before committing on something in the long run, do a premortem

Let’s suppose you’re planning to switch from freelancing to selling web design templates (so you’re changing your business model). After 3 months, you see that the new business model of selling templates doesn’t make you much money (which was your primary goal). Postmortem is the analysis you do after you’ve seen that your project failed (so you do the plan, see the results and analyze why it failed after you did the execution.)

Premortem is a powerful principle because it forces you to look into the future and assume that your plan has totally failed. So, for our example, suppose you’ve just finished planning your web design templates business model and you want to do a pre-mortem. What you need to do is imagine yourself 3 months in the future (it could be more, depending on how much time you plan to dedicate on the project) and imagining seeing that your plan was a total fiasco. Nothing worked. Why? Write down the reasons. Some of them could be:

  • Not having enough money to get enough clients to make the whole business worthwhile
  • Not many people interested in generic web design templates

and so on. You see the power of this? By focusing on why your project might fail you’re getting much more balanced view. So now you can do some more research and take factors like the size of the market (enough people interested in web design templates) etc.

You can do this type of premortem analysis for every medium or long-term project you do (premortem and the rest of the principles here aren’t required for all types of decisions, most decisions we do are without much risk & the choices are obvious). You can read more on premortem here.

Prove Yourself Wrong!

These are 2 mistakes we often do and pay a high price for it:

  • Not considering enough alternatives when making a decision
  • Making a decision based on very limited evidence

Making a Decision Based on Limited Evidence

In one experiment, the researchers gave people the choice of a number of treatments for a fictitious disease and told them the effectiveness of each treatment. Each option was combined with a positive, neutral or negative anecdote.

Let’s suppose a person named Anny was a part of that experiment. She was given a choice of a treatment with 90% effectiveness but was also told a story of a person who wasn’t part of that 90% of people for whom the treatment worked. How do you think would Anny respond?

Anny would be 39% likely to choose that treatment, as we can see from the pictures. An extremely good treatment with 1 negative experience decreased the chances people will choose that treatment by almost 300%. That’s the power of anecdotes.

The above study is an example of people making a decision based on very limited evidence. Another example I often see on web design blogs is people blindly copying themselves. Mashable, one of the most popular social media blogs, once introduced a feature called ‘Image sharing’, you could just drag an image and a box (see below) would appear suggesting you ‘share’ that image on Twitter or Facebook:

After some time they removed the whole thing but still, many smaller blogs use that feature based on the rationalization: “If Mashable did it, then it must be good!” In reality, that was probably just a test they did and didn’t see any results from it.

What about web design blogs? I see a trend in web design blogs of producing extremely long posts (when it’s well known that people read at most 28% of the words on a page) instead of focusing on quality (it’s hard to measure the quality of a particular post, many factors need to be considered there so people often rely on the number of words as a measurement). There are some information quality theories which can offer a more objective picture of a quality of a content by taking into account several factors.

So the important lesson here is:

COLLECT ENOUGH DATA BEFORE YOU MAKE A DECISION. Want to test what’s the best way to monetize your site? Then run ads using 1 ad network for a week, then go for another one next week. Get enough large samples in order to make decent conclusions.

What about consulting with other people? As long as it’s people and not 1 person (the Mashable technical designer who introduced that social sharing feature or 1 anecdote), it’s fine. The wisdom of crowds is a powerful thing. Just make sure the “crowd” is DIVERSE and you hear as many different opinions as possible. Which leads me to my second point…

Not considering enough alternatives when making a decision

People love to surround themselves with people who have similar opinions/beliefs. The reasons are obvious: it’s a very comfortable position to be in, no negative emotions and conflicts are happening etc. Unfortunately, this is very detrimental for your decision-making process. I’ve mentioned previously that you want to make better decisions, consulting outside opinion is very helpful.

Consulting with outside similar opinion is not very helpful, however. This contributes to a phenomenon known as Groupthink which is the last thing you want to do if you want to get to an accurate decision.

What can you do here?

  • Seek diversity

This can be hard to do initially. Look for opposite opinions from the people in your group. Here you’ll risking short-term comfort (emotionally) for a long-term benefit (a broader and more accurate view). In my experience, I often get very useful opposite opinions and become aware of things I previously overlooked when trying to make a specific decision.

For example, when you try to decide between 2 or 3 web design tools, look for the pros and cons of each. Many people often look for the advantages only not realizing that nothing is perfect and that by becoming aware of the limits a specific tool has, you can make your job easier by eventually finding additional tools that can fill that void.

  • Look for ability

Of course, when consulting with people, look for people which file of expertise is relevant to your own. So if you want to find a good software, asking experienced people from review sites + web designers is a good idea.

How much skill (and how much luck)?

People are often inaccurate on saying  how much skill/luck is required in order to reach a particular outcome.

One good question to ask yourself to help you sort luck from skill is:

Can you lose on purpose?

Can you lose on purpose in roulette? Almost never. Roulette is 100% luck. What about poker? Well, yeah, you can lose on purpose but not always so it’s part skill, part luck.

I think it’s important for you, as a web designer, to distinguish luck from skill because you’ll be often predicting things (like if a client really likes the design you made etc) and need to have somewhat accurate view of the probability of the outcome happening.

Learn more:

Wikipedia has a great list of cognitive biases if you want to learn more about this topic. Hope you found this article to be useful.


I got many of the principles here from a great book called Think Twice + some of my previous experience in reading psychology research.



  1. Martha

    Very good article in general. However, there was one point I had an issue with. It´s regarding the long blog posts that some top people are doing. Recent studies seem to indicate that if the content is compelling enough people have no problem reading a longer page.

    One study in particular looked at increasing the conversion page text. They found that by improving the information they were giving their visitors on the conversion page they increased conversion significantly. The page ended up being over 10 times longer than the original.

    Another reason a long page might be better is because it gives you more change to rank for different keywords a short page simply might not include, thus increasing organic traffic.

    The last reason a long page might be better, and this is speculative, is that the recent Panda quality updates seem to be favouring long pages over shorter ones. This might be significant as a measure of the quality of a page could be its lenght.

  2. Thanks for packaging useful info about decision making in terms of Web design and business. Great example of using research insights to support business goals.