How product teams can break free from cognitive bias

Written by Nat Brown  | 



Facing continued economic uncertainty, companies are rallying around product teams to strengthen both their customer experience and business health as a whole. Product professionals have never been more valued—or had more expected of them. Not only do they need to design and build innovative features, they have to understand how those features are going to drive value for customers and advance key business goals. 

Cognitive biases can lead to misalignment between what you build and what customers want or the business needs. So how can product teams overcome them? This was the topic of a recent webinar led by Christine Itwaru (Principal Strategist, Mind the Product & Pendo) and Jeanette Fuccella (Director, UX Research, Pendo). In their discussion, they dug into the problem of cognitive bias in product management: how we all carry biases as humans, how and why we make decisions with our “gut,” and how we can leverage data and change team culture to foster better choices and actions.

Data is a the yogurt of a healthy product gut 

Fuccella began the discussion by suggesting that the binary of “going with one’s gut” vs. leveraging data in product decision-making is a false opposition. “What does it mean to make a decision when you’re going with your gut? If we want to avoid bias, shouldn’t we be going with our brain instead of our gut? I would argue that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. You actually need both.” 

Trusting one’s gut, she explained, is a useful and important ability for product managers. But like any other skill, it’s one that requires training to master. The best way to make sure that your gut guides you to the right decisions is to regularly consume product research and data. To illustrate why, Fuccella used the analogy of a healthy gut microbiome. 

“Just like your actual gut biome is composed of many different species of flora, your product ‘gut’ is dependent on a broad spectrum of different types of data—both quantitative and qualitative,” she explained. “In the same way that you can eat yogurt to improve your actual gut health, your ‘product gut biome’ will improve if it’s fed a study diet of research and insights.”

The bias trap . . . 

While trusting one’s gut in product decision-making is important, there are still pitfalls that come with it, namely the risk of cognitive bias clouding one’s judgment. Many biases commonly affect product teams. Consider the sunk-cost fallacy. “We define this as following through on a project or a feature that may not be right—or may even be doomed to fail—simply because somebody’s put a ton of work into it already,” Itwaru explained. 

“There’s been so much talk about product people having imposter syndrome,” she continued, “and if you think about the sunk-cost fallacy, it goes along with feeling this imposter syndrome. You’re trying to appear as if you’ve got it all together, and the expectation is that you as the product manager are making the right calls at all the right times—you know what you’re doing. So if at the end of the day you’ve put in a ton of thought and work into something, it’s natural to be afraid to pull the plug.”

. . . and how to escape it

The sunk-cost fallacy was just one of several biases Itwaru and Fuccella discussed in the webinar, but no matter which ones you’re facing, the best path forward is the same. “It’s impossible to not have any bias,” Fuccella said, “but what we can do as humans is put in place processes and tools to help mitigate the bias that we have naturally.”

Part of that is building a culture of feedback and ensuring product teams are getting cross-functional insights from customers and across the organization. The more diverse the set of voices weighing in, the better. Feedback is a gift, no matter what it’s telling you, and the most effective product teams take their egos out of the picture in order to act on what that qualitative data is telling them. 

A culture of experimentation goes hand in hand with a culture of feedback, both panelists said. With that experimental approach comes the ability to make changes based on user preference and the data, and a mindset that treats ideas as hypotheses to be tested—not preferences to be defended no matter what. “In tech the way that we work is to move fast,” Fuccella said. “And we fix forward by always thinking about what we’re learning in order to iterate and do better the next time.”

To learn more about cognitive biases in product management and how to combat them, watch the full webinar recording above or check out our interactive page on biases here