False-Consensus Bias in Web Design

A few days ago I sent a link of this blog to a friend of mine whose opinions and stance on journalistic issues I value highly. Let’s call this friend Lance.

I told Lance I wanted to start writing here under my full name and that I was wondering what he thought about it.

Working as a news anchorman, my perceived neutrality is critical. I am very minded about what I write here and how, but I still felt the need for another set of experienced, unbiased eyes to go over it. Just to be sure.

Three days went by, and then this reply appears in my inbox:

“A pretty revealing blog you got there. I urge you to think through this a bit more, you’ll definitely have some explaining to do once your name is signed on it”

Now, Lance is quite an experienced journalist, so as much as I was assured there were no misdoings on my part, I stopped for a moment and started wondering what he might have read that made him say this.

I couldn’t find anything too sensational or even remotely personal. And it drove me crazy.

What am I missing?

Luckily, we had a meeting scheduled for later that week. I resisted the urge to reply to his e-mail.

Towards the end of our talk on Friday, I asked Lance about his e-mail, hinting that I’m not sure what made him think my writing is so “revealing”.

A designer’s false-consensus bias

What he said next would provide us both with a relieving fit of laughter, but more importantly, it provided me with and imoprtant lesson as the writer, producer, and designer of this blog.

Well, I just urged you to rethink it. I didn’t say you shouldn’t write. If I were an anchorman though, I wouldn’t write about sensitive stuff just like that.

And how come I never knew you had a brother?

I don’t.

Wait a minute.

That was the moment I realized how things went down: Lance was referring to a post published here on May 10th, 2013 under the title ‘My brother, my mother, and a call girl’. It’s a great piece I found on The Hairpin and decided to link to.

Lance, though, had thought it was written by me.

The thing is, even after we opened the web browser on his office computer, Lance still found it hard to differentiate between things that I’ve written and things that I was only referring to/quoting.

This was because I had previously decided to eschew the link-post format in favor of design uniformity. I counted on visitors — web-savvy and non-web-savvy alike — to make them apart from my own-written material. Also, quotes were only slightly different in color than the rest of text, with a border to their left — quite a common practice for quotation styling on the web.

The reflex response to this is “maybe he just doesn’t get this web stuff” — which may or may not be true — but the underlying question was: “even if Lance isn’t my (or the) average blog reader, how much clearer can this website’s design be?”

The deeper I dug into this question, the closer I came to the realization that I had fallen a victim to something called the “false-consensus bias”. The first paragraph from Wikipedia reads:

In psychology, the false-consensus effect or false-consensus bias is a cognitive bias whereby a person tends to overestimate how much other people agree with him or her. There is a tendency for people to assume that their own opinions, beliefs, preferences, values and habits are ‘normal’ and that others also think the same way that they do. This cognitive bias tends to lead to the perception of a consensus that does not exist, a ‘false consensus’. This false consensus is significant because it increases self-esteem. The need to be “normal” and fit in with other people is underlined by a desire to conform and be liked by others in a social environment.

While not exceptionally harmful in other crafts, I saw clearly how false consensus biases can result in serious flaws in a web-designer’s work: non-textual, visual choices clearly affected the perception and context of textual output and altered the final experience for some readers. The assumption that the final result is clear enough for everyone if it is clear enough for me was a rookie-designer’s conception.

The moment I got out of Lance’s room, I started thinking about the next redesign. This time it would have to be much more than just aesthetics. During the last few days, I found myself thinking about how to make the this blog’s design more efficient: semantically, chromatically, and structurally.

The result, hopefully, will be clear enough so I don’t have to explain it to you. Or to Lance.

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