Hindsight Bias and $300 Million Buttons

This morning I came across Jared Spool’s article about the $300 Million Button.

To summarize, Jared’s team worked on an ecommerce site that required a login/registration to complete the checkout process. They did some design research and found out this step was chasing away huge numbers of potential customers – first-time users were resistant to registering, and even repeat users frequently forgot their usernames and passwords, causing frustration. When they eliminated the registration requirement, sales increased by $300 million in the first year.

“Well, duh,” I thought. Registering with a new and possibly unknown site is a serious commitment for many people. Of course it would chase them away. If the designers were any good, they wouldn’t have needed a research study to tell them that.

But then my personal B.S. detector went off. Wait a minute, I thought. Would I have done better in their shoes? Or am I falling prey to hindsight bias?

Hindsight bias is the human tendency to erroneously believe that we knew something all along after the facts have become clear. After 9/11, many firmly believed another terrorist attack was imminent. Ask them now, and they’ll claim they always knew it wasn’t that likely. Many of us “knew” the 2008 market collapse would happen. But if that was the case, why didn’t we sell our houses and move all our investments into gold?

Hindsight bias affects design research when we look at the results of a study and say “Well, duh.” It seems so obvious… in retrospect. We forget that facts aren’t nearly so clear, the right principles aren’t nearly so easy to follow, before the “correct” decisions are made clear through evidence. We fool ourselves into believing the people who made the incorrect decision must lack talent or training. Since we are talented and well-trained (self-serving bias) we don’t need any stinkin’ design research to avoid such amateurish mistakes.

It’s thinking like this that leads companies to de-invest in design research. And to build 300 million dollar buttons.

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