Applying the fundamental attribution error to product design

Why the fundamental attribution error is dangerous and how we might apply it to product design.

From the Wikipedia: “In social psychology, the fundamental attribution error describes the tendency to over-value dispositional or personality-based explanations for the observed behaviors of others while under-valuing situational explanations for those behaviors.”

In other words, we tend to undervalue the environment when explaining the behavior of others while overvaluing someone’s personality. This seems right…and makes sense because we often don’t know the situation someone else is in and so go by what we know: their personality.

The fundamental attribution error directly applies to product design. Think about the common problem of designing a new product for a particular market. We want to find product/market fit, right? Well, one of our first inclinations might be to find an existing market and then try to figure out what product might be useful for them. This happens a lot, and the markets are often looked at from a personality-based standpoint. Oh, I’m going after the 20-something hipsters market. Or I’m going after married women in their 40s who drive a Range Rover and want to enjoy life. We imagine people within these groups to have similar personalities…and they might.

To look at markets from a personality-based standpoint is to fall prey to the fundamental attribution error. It’s as deadly a trap as is a demographic-based standpoint. What we must do instead is to look at people’s behavioral similarities to discover really valuable markets for product design.

People can be very dissimilar demographically and personality-wise but still have the same basic needs. Imagine two people getting married: one a 45 year old woman and the other a 24 year old man. A traditional marketing and product focus would treat these two people very differently…they are in different life stages, different careers, different family sizes, etc.

But both are doing very similar activities at the moment, and their needs overlap more than anybody else right now. For the activity they’re trying to complete (getting married) they have to do the paperwork, plan a ceremony, hire caterers, invite others, choose a venue, etc. All of these things have extremely similar steps, and a product/service that might support them can come really close to supporting both. There will be differences, of course, in the taste of the two people, but the actual activity at hand is extremely similar.

That’s why the fundamental attribution error is so important…because these two people seem really different. They come from totally different backgrounds, have different goals at the moment, completely different demographics, and opposite personalities. But from a product design standpoint…their needs are almost the same.

So the takeaway is that when designing products we should avoid the fundamental attribution error by emphasizing the situation in which our users find themselves. What activities are they trying to complete? What are the constraints of that activity? What environmental factors change their options? What are the common friction points for people doing this activity? By systematically emphasizing the environment in this way we can begin to see the patterns in behavior that result not from personality but from the shared human activities we all take part in.

Published: November 12th, 2012