13-15 June 2018

Dynamic Earth, Edinburgh

Overcoming bias in design

Session type:
Case Study

Session duration:
45 minutes

Presented by:

Heather O'Neill

Pixels for Humans

About this Case Study

Bias. We all deal with it, and we all have it. It’s baked into our brains, and into our social systems. It helps us make decisions - for better or (often) for worse. Every design and content decision we make has layers of assumptions hidden below the surface. And for those of us who are designers, builders and makers, those decisions can have real consequences for people’s lives. Our great challenge is to retain the assumptions that make us good at our jobs, while overcoming the ones that can harm or alienate the people we design for.

The way to deal with bias is not to ignore it, but to face it head-on, recognise it and work on it directly. In this session, I will cover the types of bias we experience in ourselves and others - particularly as designers and technology workers - with detailed examples of how that bias can result in harm. We'll cover:

  • how intention doesn’t negate the harm that bias can cause
  • a more tangible, helpful definition of bias
  • the brain’s ability to process information, particularly the fact that it cannot process a lot of information and therefore has to take shortcuts
  • what cognitive bias is and how we all have it and don’t even know it
  • an example of the bandwagon effect, a type of cognitive bias, in the design community
  • how we don’t get a lot of feedback because people feel like they won't be listened to, especially marginalised communities, who are often shut down if they do speak up
  • what systemic bias is and how it plays out, including examples of systemic bias both in our world and in design
  • the fact that algorithms are not objective even though they are touted as such and they lead to non-objective designs if we don’t account for their biases
  • examples of algorthimic bias
  • how we can combat this and how pervasive it is, including subtle examples of bias in design
  • how most UX people work from a limited version of empathy and how we can tangibly expand our empathy
  • considering the worst case scenarios for our design as well as the best
  • examples of how design can cause harm


I'll also cover actions people can take to start to overcome bias, including:

  • following marginalised people on social media - not to argue or discuss with them, but just to hear their voices
  • hiring marginalised people in our field instead of mainstream consultants whenever possible because they have a broader and different perspective
  • outlining assumptions and challenging them


You will leave with a fuller understanding of how bias plays out in design and what we can do to overcome it. The main thrust is to help people really believe and deeply understand how pervasive our biases can go, even if we think we have overcome them.

About the Speaker

Heather O'Neill is a product strategist with over a decade of experience creating meaningful products for the people who use them. At Pixels for Humans, Heather helps companies define where they are heading and create the strategies to get there, faster.

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