Outcome Bias

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Image created with Midjourney. Image prompt: 2d illustration minimal style of a diver poised at the edge of a high cliff, focusing on the leap itself, while a giant, shimmering pool of water waits below, symbolizing the outcome

"Judge a decision not only by the result, but also by the decision-making process"1. This simple yet profound statement encapsulates the concept of outcome bias, a cognitive bias that influences how we evaluate decisions based on their outcomes rather than the quality of the decision at the time it was made.

In the realm of digital product development, outcome bias can significantly impact our perspective on decision-making, success, and failure. Let's dive into three examples illustrating how outcome bias manifests in this domain and how understanding it can lead to more informed, balanced assessments of our work.


Product Design Decisions

Consider a scenario where a team decides to implement a new user interface based on well-researched user needs and preferences. However, after the launch, the feature does not receive the expected positive user feedback. With outcome bias, the team might view their decision as a failure. However, their process was sound - they conducted research and made a well-informed decision. The unexpected outcome doesn't necessarily mean their decision was poor; it simply suggests a need for further investigation and iteration.

Architectural Choices

In another instance, a development team might choose to use a new technology stack for a project, based on its promising features and community support. If the project encounters issues down the line due to unforeseen limitations of the technology, it can be easy to fall into outcome bias and label the initial decision as wrong. However, the decision was rational at the time it was made, and the unexpected issues do not retrospectively invalidate that.

Startup Success and Failure

Outcome bias also plays a role in how we perceive startup success and failure. A startup's demise is often seen as an indication of poor decisions or strategy. Conversely, successful startups are assumed to have made all the right moves. However, the reality is much more complex. Many successful startups made questionable decisions that luckily worked out, while many failed startups made sound decisions but were undone by market forces or other external factors.

Understanding and acknowledging outcome bias is crucial in the world of digital product development. It encourages us to focus on the decision-making process, to learn from both successful and unsuccessful outcomes, and to continuously improve our strategies based on these insights.

Recognizing outcome bias allows us to appreciate the journey of product development, knowing that a well-informed decision is a success in itself, regardless of the outcome. It teaches us to be resilient in the face of unexpected results, to iterate, and to keep moving forward. Ultimately, it's the process that guides us on the path to creating impactful digital products.

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