5 Common Unconscious Biases We See In Product Development

Studying the unconscious decisions we make can be critical when it comes to designing products or software people use, or when trying to uncover precisely what’s wrong with our workplace today. In the next series of posts we will uncover 5 different kinds of unconscious biases, beginning with a very common bias we see in the workplace, “The Affinity Bias.”

What is an unconscious bias?

Everyone processes information using unconscious bias. Human beings are faced with around 11 million bits of information at any given moment, per Timothy Wilson, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, author of “Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious.” As the brain is able to process only 40 of those bits of information at a time, it creates shortcuts using our past knowledge to make assumptions and connect the dots, being very powerfully guided by all the things we expect to be true in the world.

Unconscious bias happens automatically and is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and our personal experiences. Unconscious bias is far more prevalent than conscious bias, and often incompatible with our conscious values. As well, certain scenarios can activate unconscious attitudes and beliefs, for example, biases may be more prevalent when multitasking and working under extreme time pressure or stress.

Becoming aware of unconscious bias in the workplace

Most of us believe we are ethical and unbiased. We imagine we’re good decision makers, able to objectively size up a job candidate or a venture deal and reach a fair and rational conclusion in our favor and in our organization’s best interests. However, Harvard University researcher Mahzarin Banjai from HBR writes “more than two decades of research confirms that, in reality, most of us fall woefully short of our inflated self-perception.” 1 In fact, we are so woefully short of being aware of our unconscious bias that detecting unconscious bias has now become a growing business.2

What is affinity bias?

Affinity bias is a tendency to warm up to people like ourselves.  How this plays out in an organizational context: when you select somebody to work in your organization, you tend to prefer someone like yourself. For example, the founder selected team members similar to him, who in turn selected people who were similar to them, and so on, perhaps ultimately impacting the diversity and inclusion you were consciously hoping to achieve.

Corporate hiring practices are set up to find people who are a “good fit” for the organization, people who will bring value to the team. These requirements cause us to look for candidates who are professionally skilled, and are also people we can relate to. To mitigate affinity bias in the hiring process, many corporations attempt to engage diverse interviews to add different perspectives to the hiring discussions. In truth, we all have a natural propensity to want to be around people we can relate to and, if we are honest, have a really hard time contemplating the alternative.

If affinity bias means being biased towards “people who make me comfortable” or “people who are like me,” as well, tucked in the recesses of our minds are the shadows of these thoughts—“people who make me uncomfortable” and “people who are not like me”, ultimately impacting the diversity of your team.

Why would you want diversity and inclusion in your workplace?       

A diverse and inclusive workforce is needed to be able to hire top talent, drive innovation, foster creativity, and guide business strategies. Multiple, diverse perspectives lead to new ideas, new services, new products, and encourage out-of-the-box thinking.3 Rawan Abukhadrah, Entrepreneur and Product Owner of Amman, Jordan, attendee of our #PoDojo 3-day workshop agrees: “By working alongside people of different experiences and backgrounds this creates a more innovative atmosphere that opens the door for creativity, productivity, and improved team performance.”

Raising awareness of Affinity bias

Here’s a 40 minute exercise you can do with your teams to begin to raise awareness of what affinity bias is, and how it might affect the workplace – beginning with the team itself.

  • On the left margin of an A4 sized piece of paper, ask your team members to write down initials of 5 people they trust deeply.  (Timebox 5 minutes.)
  • Next, across the top of the page, ask people to list the following columns:  (Timebox 2 minutes, or you can prep this A4 in advance, saving the 2 minutes.) Gender, Age, Education, Sexual Orientation, Disability (Y/N), Marital Status, Ethnicity/Race, (and please feel free to add any additional columnar headings reflecting a point of diversity that may help your ability to empathize with the customer.)
  • Now ask them to codify their Trusted 5 by the dimensions of diversity across the columns. Let your team come up with their own codes (F for Female, for example) and ask them to quietly notice what they notice as they are going through the process.  (Timebox 10 minutes.)


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  • Quiet reflection time next, triggered by key questions: (Timebox 13 minutes)
    • What is the relationship between your Trusted 5 and inclusive diversity?
    • If you had a high profile, high risk, sexy product development effort coming down the pike, and if your Trusted 5 were your co-workers, would you be more likely to look for someone in the Trusted 5 to help with this? And if you did this time after time, how would that affect the team, or change the diversity or inclusion?
    • Over time, folks wind their way into our Trusted 5 as we get to know them.  Are these folks more diverse or less diverse than the general population?
    • If you chose to, how would you make your Trusted 5 more diverse? And why?

Final question with an open discussion: (Timebox 10 minutes)

Looking at diversity and inclusion as a business strategy4 versus a problem to solve, how would embracing diversity and inclusion, i.e. embracing diverse perspectives, have an impact on

  • customer empathy?
  • worldview of markets?
  • potential customers?
  • opportunities?
  • possibilities….?

Let us know how this exercise works for your team if you try it. Please send feedback to contact@podojo.com with your ideas and findings!

Stay tuned!

Subsequent posts on unconscious biases will include the following:

  • Halo effect: The tendency to think everything about a person is good because you like that person.
  • Perception bias: The tendency to form stereotypes and assumptions which make it impossible to make an objective judgements
  • Confirmation bias: The tendency for people to seek information that confirms pre-existing beliefs or assumptions.
  • Group think: This bias occurs when people try too hard to fit into a particular group, either by mimicking others or holding back thoughts and opinions. This causes them to lose part of their identities and causes organizations to lose out on creativity and innovation.



1. This topic was so important to Google that in 2014 they launched a campaign regarding unconscious bias – strategically timed as Google and other Silicon Valley tech companies were under fire for the lack of diversity in their ranks, using the campaign to make hiring managers more aware of the hidden preferences they bring to their decision making. Two years later TIME reports that they still have long way to go.

2. See FastCompany.com’s review of Textio, Kanjoya and Unitive.works here.

3. Forbes Insights “Global Diversity and Inclusion: Fostering Innovation Through a Diverse Workforce”  report discusses why diversity is no longer simply a matter of creating a heterogeneous workforce, but using that workforce to innovate and give it a competitive advantage in the marketplace. The report is based on an exclusive survey of 321 executives at large global enterprises ($500 million-plus in annual revenues).

4. Diversity and inclusion as a strategy:  In a Feb 2015 McKinsey study of 366 public companies analyzed, those in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity were 35% more likely to have financial returns above national industry medians.