My Precious… How Sunk Cost Fallacy Clouds Your Design Judgement

8 Apr, 2013

Creating a prototype is usually the most effective means of expressing a designer’s vision. There is a hazard in prototyping though that may cloud a designer’s judgement, and, ultimately, lead to biased and irrational decision making.

When people make an investment, it becomes painful (literally) to walk away.

The more time a person invests in something…anything, the more precious it becomes to them. This is true for relationships, jobs, and bad habits. Those investments—even when they offer poor returns—become more difficult to abandon. This phenomenon is a behavioral economic principle known as The Sunk Cost Fallacy.

Your decisions are tainted by the emotional investments you accumulate, and the more you invest in something the harder it becomes to abandon it.

Have you ever sat through an entire movie that you knew was awful within the first 20 minutes? How about finishing a meal at a restaurant even though it wasn’t particularly good, and you weren’t feeling particularly hungry? You’re genetically predisposed to do this because the most successful of our primitive ancestors evolved to avoid losses. When people make an investment, any investment—financial, emotional, or otherwise—it becomes painful (literally) to walk away.

How The Sunk Cost Fallacy Can Sink Impartial Judgement

As a thoughtful designer you’ve taken the time to distill customer needs and business goals in order to create a design solution. You’ve considered any potential gotchas and technical limitations, and you’ve carefully built out a detailed prototype to help express and validate your design decisions. Depending on the design & functionality of the prototype and the method used to create it, this could easily represent at least one to two weeks of work, or more.

My Precious!

Once the prototype is revealed, your stakeholders will have feedback. When you test it, your customers will have feedback. If you’ve invested a fairly significant amount of time designing and building out a prototype, as a human being, you can’t help but become biased and resistent (resentful even) to any feedback that conflicts with your vision. The more time invested—the more reluctant to change you will be.

Mitigating The Sunk Cost Fallacy During The Design Process

Irrational human nature is a formidable foe, but there are some techniques that designers can employ to limit the effects of emotional attachment and aversion to loss. Many of these techniques are complimentary to Lean UX and Agile Development methodologies.

  1. Embrace change. Do your best to go into any design engagement with the knowledge that any decisions may be temporary
  2. Design and prototype iteratively & incrementally. Early on, explore several solutions. Spend less time focusing on small details and becoming emotionally attached to any single optimal solution. If you’re spending more than a day or two honing a design, consider walking away and working on something else for a while. Socialize and test each design iteration, and allow feedback to propel additional iterations, fleshing out details
  3. Share design responsibilities among cross-functional teams in order to distribute product ownership & investment. Monitor each other’s emotional attachment while consistently providing constructive feedback
  4. Consult with trusted impartial advisors (and customers) who can offer unbiased feedback and identify when the Sunk Cost Fallacy may be beginning to sneak into the process

Designers who work in a vacuum, spend weeks honing prototypes, and are reluctant to share unfinished work are most susceptible to succumbing to Sunk Cost Fallacy. These may be very talented and capable people, but these designers ultimately end up designing for themselves rather than what may be in the best interests of the end user.

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