Why Product Managers need to know about unconscious bias

Kate Gooden

“You’re not responsible for your first thought; but you are for your second thought and the first action you take.”

InDebted’s Head of Product Disha Manikumar probably didn’t expect her talk to be running to a virtual audience…but we are Product Managers and if there’s one thing we do well, it’s pivot! Disha gave us a masterclass on the different types of bias and why unconscious bias in particular can severely affect your performance as a Product Manager AND the quality of the Products you produce.

But what exactly is bias?

Bias is an inclination or prejudice for or against a person or a group, which is considered to be unfair. It takes two forms:

  • Conscious bias – you are aware and are intentional in your thoughts or actions
  • Unconscious bias – you perform something without realising its impact

In a nutshell – your brain has a fast and slow mode. The fast involves no effort – it’s reactionary and it means you’re largely not responsible for your first thought (unconscious). BUT, then your slow mode kicks in which makes you responsible for your second thought or action (conscious). Conscious bias is relatively easy to protect against – because you know you’re doing it – but unconscious bias, that’s much trickier.

How can it impact our Products?

Here’s a quick three-step process where unconscious bias can lead you into making a Product that fails. That is, it doesn’t please your customers AND it loses money.

  1. Lack of team diversity: Leaders who let unconscious bias influence their hiring decisions are likely to recruit people similar to them, thus reducing team diversity.
  2. Unchallenged ideas: Teams lacking diversity tend to generate ideas within a narrow band. As a result, you might be missing out on great ideas or alternatively you might readily accept ideas which aren’t right for your customers.
  3. Customer problems aren’t solved: If you accept ideas that aren’t right for the customer you’re much more likely to create a Product that isn’t solving a customer problem – and so end up creating one of the 80% of Products that are built, but virtually unused.

As well as this critical path to Product failure Disha also showed us how unconscious bias can lead to producing Products that are a bit generic, bland and just blah. A lack of diversity in your team and thinking can lead you to create customer personas which also lack diversity. Most personas are binary (male or female), but all possible data points should be considered to ensure they reflect your actual audience. Implicit bias can be fought using data – go wide for a bigger sample.

This unconscious bias can also lead to us creating mass market Products which are too complicated. Most of us think we’re amazing at usability, but really a lot of us aren’t that great. We think of Netflix as a relatively “simple” product, but we all use it differently. Huge challenges come with giving ease of usability to a wide audience, but understanding our unconscious bias and creating complex, fully rounded personas which truly reflect the diversity of our audience can help guard against this.

Top Tip: Trust your product designers and KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid)!

How can we overcome it?

There are two main things to look at here, personal and professional.

On a personal level, we should:

  • Challenge stereotypes and seek active feedback. (Book recommendation: Radical Candor)
  • Use inclusive language to include everyone you’re addressing
  • Focus on a person’s actions
  • Collaborate with people from different backgrounds
  • Educate yourself by reading, discussing with people from different backgrounds and sharing what you’ve learnt widely.
  • Be aware of confirmation bias e.g. just because a leader said it, it doesn’t mean it’s right. Remember, the reason you were hired is to challenge and push boundaries. Don’t be afraid to speak up!

On a professional level we need to:

  • Know our customers. Understand their needs and the resources they have access to. Remember, 40% of the global population don’t have internet access and even less than that have a smartphone.
  • Work with a diverse team who can think differently and offer a wide range of ideas.
  • Don’t be afraid to go back to the drawing board and challenge your assumptions.
  • Question the data you’re using to make decisions, are you collecting the right data in the first place?

Being biased is natural, it’s part of life and part of who we are. There’s no way that we can avoid being biased entirely, but if we can be more aware of our biases (particularly our unconscious biases) then we can be better Product Managers, create better Products and be better people!

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Kate Gooden

Kate Gooden | Author

When Kate first started working in digital publishing, her lecturer suggested "print would be a more stable industry to get into". She followed her love of all things digital and 10 years later caught the Product Management bug. She's now a Senior Product Manager at Amazon, creating engaging Entertainment experiences on Alexa.

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