Bad Advice: Trust Your Gut

"Trust your gut." 

This sounds great. Empowering, even. I have heard this often in the past, and I may have even given it in moments of excitement. But this is bad advice for many reasons. 

 Homer Simpson's flawed and tiny brain. 

Homer Simpson's flawed and tiny brain. 

Our brains are extremely flawed and are prone to lead us astray. The following are just a few of the cognitive glitches that explain why you shouldn't trust your gut.

Confirmation bias is our very human tendency to favor information that supports our existing beliefs and discount those that disagree with them.

How we look for and gather information is biased, and your search engines are doing this automatically. When you do a search, it's more than likely the results are ranked or filtered based on your historical behavior – and you're not even aware of it.  

How we interpret information is biased. Two people who hold different beliefs can see the same exact information and come to different conclusions. 

How we interpret memories is biased. We view the past in the best possible light or least embarrassing way and we selectively remember those things that support what we already believe. 

The sunk-cost fallacy leads us to keep going because we have already invested a lot of time, energy, money, or effort towards something, even when it's irrational to continue. How often have you pursued a design solution beyond the point of reason because you already spent so much time on it? 

When we put too much weight on the first piece of information we get about something or someone, that's anchoring. It's one of the reasons why we dress up when we want to make a good impression, whether it's for a first date or a job interview. 

Due to the gambler's fallacy, we truly suck at estimating the odds. We expect the frequency of things to balance out in the future. If you flip a coin and get heads three times in a row, what are the chances of the next coin flip to be heads again? 

One of my favorites is the above average effect or illusory superiority where we tend to overestimate our positive qualities. Most of us believe we are exceptional; for example, the vast majority of surveyed drivers consider themselves to be of above-average skill. 

•••••

I was a designer on Crimson Skies for the original Xbox game console. You got to fly around in cool planes and shoot stuff. I was primarily responsible for multiplayer where up to sixteen people can play with and against each other, but I also had some responsibility for the single-player campaign mode. 

One of the chapters in the campaign involved you, the protagonist, having to prove yourself worthy. I devised a series of challenges including the Trial of Skill (go to 5:40 in the video above to see this in action) which involved following another plane through a series of obstacles and maneuvers. I spent a lot of time making sure the story made sense, the environment was set up properly, the flight paths and special moves were just right. Sounds fun, right? 

 These are just a few of the actual online comments from customers. 

These are just a few of the actual online comments from customers. 

Mea culpa! I probably should have listened to more of the people who said that it may have been a little difficult. I should have ignored the fact that I had spent so much time on it. I should have sought out more opinions from people outside the team who weren't already experts playing the game that we had been building for a couple years.

I listened to my gut a little too much and I honestly feel like I almost broke the single-player campaign mode because of it.

•••••

Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.
— Rita Mae Brown or Mark Twain or Will Rogers or Someone else

To have a gut you can trust, you need to have good judgment. To actually gain good experience from exercising bad judgment, you need to be able to critically examine the reasons for failure. You need to work on objectively learning from the experience. 

•••••

I was on the design team for the Xbox 360 platform team (which was a fantastic experience, by the way) and I remember working on the game controller. 

 The Xbox 360 controller sitting on a pile of prototypes, models, and sketches. 

The Xbox 360 controller sitting on a pile of prototypes, models, and sketches. 

 6 & 9 are the left & right triggers, 5 & 10 are the left & right bumpers. 

6 & 9 are the left & right triggers, 5 & 10 are the left & right bumpers. 

After we finalized the names of the buttons, which was another interesting experience by itself, there was significant disagreement on the orientation of the labels for the Triggers and Bumpers

Most people, including the higher-ups in the organization, wanted to have them appear "right side up". It was how the Sony Playstation did it, so it should be good enough, right? 

I disagreed. I thought they should be "upside down" – it just felt right to me. At this point I had no data to back it up but it made tons of sense to me as a gamer and game designer. I gathered feedback informally by taking a prototype controller, walking around the building, and handing it to random people. I would ask them to hold it as if they're playing normally and look at the triggers to look at how they're labeled. Almost every single one of them would simply tilt both hands up and look down to see them.

 I've recolored the labels to make them more visible - they're not actually colored red. 

I've recolored the labels to make them more visible - they're not actually colored red. 

Even with this, there were some people who fought us every step of the way. The Marketing department argued that they didn't want the product photos to show upside down labels! 

In the end, we ended up including a task in an official usability test and found my original hypothesis validated. We got the data we needed to make the case. And so it came to be, and this little decision has carried over to the Xbox One to the minor delight of gamers everywhere. 

•••••

As much as I'd like to say to actually trust your gut, I won't. What you should do instead: 

  • Train your gut. 
  • Lead with design. 
  • Validate with data. 

Train your gut. Don't trust your gut blindly. Recognize that we are extremely flawed humans with brains end egos that mislead us. Be aware of your biases. 

Lead with design. Put your skills, expertise, and discipline to good use. Understand the problem first – you can't solve the problem if you don't know what it is. 

Validate with data. Test it somehow. It doesn't need to be extremely formal in a usability lab with tens of users. You can do it cheap and quick, but if you can, get some feedback. 

If you have a hypothesis, write it down so you can check to see how close or far you were from actual results. Look for opportunities to do this over and over and over. Over time, you'll get better at it so your gut is informed and exercised. Instead of gut, develop good judgment. 

Getting it right once isn't necessarily attributable to skill; it could be dumb luck. But getting it right repeatedly? That's a hell of a valuable skill.