Confirmation Bias: The Silent Product Killer

Our brains are amazing. They constantly process a ton of information in miraculous ways. As an optimization to save energy, we’re only consciously aware of a small portion of what’s going on in there.

Most of the time, this is a great thing. If we had to be consciously aware of all the input being processed from moment to moment, we’d be overwhelmed into paralysis. But for product people, this efficiency can also be a silent product killer.

You see, one of the ways our brains optimize the load is by only showing us relevant info consciously. But what does relevant mean here? Most of the time, it’s information that fits what we already believe.

A classic example: You start shopping for a new car. Maybe your family is growing and a minivan is starting to seem like a viable option. Before now, minivans were never interesting. You knew they existed. You knew people bought them. But they weren’t for you. Now that you’re in the market, though, suddenly, they’re everywhere on the road. Why did so many people suddenly buy minivans at the same time you started looking? Of course, they didn’t. Those minivans were always there, but your brain filtered them out until they seemed relevant.

What does this have to do with product development?

Finish bannerTurning to product development… Once we believe a particular feature is a good idea, our brains will show us all the data that confirms this belief—and filter out all the data that disconfirms it. Even if there’s more of the latter, our brain is constantly saying, “Here’s the data you were looking for!” and highlighting what we expect to see. This is called confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias makes it easy for a product owner to happily head down the wrong path without realizing it until too late, when all the development is done and the feature flops in production.

So, how do we mitigate this?

We can leverage the same system in our brains that creates confirmation bias to fight it. Ask this series of questions to prime your brain to show you the disconfirming data:

  • What do I believe to be true here?
  • What evidence would I see if I were right?
  • What evidence would I see if I were wrong?
  • Where might I find that evidence?

The key question is the third one, “What evidence would I see if I were wrong?” Answer this question in as much detail and clarity as you can. This prepares your brain to find and show that data rather than filtering it out.

It’s not perfect—if we feel strongly about our belief, that emotion is a cue to show more of the data we want to see—but this approach can help mitigate the risk of confirmation bias leading you to invest in features no one actually wants to pay for.

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