Why the curse of knowledge is a problem for product designers and how to manage it.
We live in a world where knowledge is power. You can teach yourself anything online these days which is nice. But when you gain more and more knowledge about a particular topic, you might not be the best person to teach others anymore. This also means that when you become an expert on the product you’re delivering, you might not be the best person to teach your users how to use it. Let’s discover why.
So let’s take the example of going to class at university. Probably most of these classes were boring and not that useful. Why is that? Well, these classes were created by experts on the topic. A typical lecturer goes through difficult information with lightning speed which makes you feel stupid or overwhelmed as a beginner. For them, this is easy knowledge so they go through it really fast. This is called “The curse of knowledge”. This means that the more familiar you are with a subject, the less you can step into the shoes of a beginner. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like for a beginner when you know so much about the topic already.
The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias that occurs when an individual, communicating with other individuals, unknowingly assumes that others have the background to understand.
Let’s say a student goes to a professor to ask a question. After answering, the student still doesn’t understand what’s going on so the professor explains it 3 more times. Even after this, the student still doesn’t get it. After trying so many times the professor gets frustrated and thinks the student is just too stupid to understand.
You might think “that’s a shitty professor” and yes it is. In this context, the student gets to look stupid but in fact, the professor is being stupid. He was explaining the issue the same way over and over. Because he knows a lot about the topic already, he wasn’t able to step into the student’s shoes and understandably explain the issue.
So now you’re familiar with the curse of knowledge, let’s discover how to deal with this as a product designer.
Take the example from above and replace the student with the user and the professor with your product. Users are not being stupid when they don’t know how to use the product, you’re just not explaining it the right way. You probably know a lot more about how the product works, what it does, and how you should use it because you’ve created it. Also, everyone has different mental models which makes everyone think a bit differently about how something might work.
A mental model is a representation of how something works and is different for everyone. We cannot store all of the details of the world in our brains, so we use models to simplify the complex into understandable and organizable chunks.
Write it down
When starting a new project, write down the things you don’t understand. For example industry-specific terms. There’s a big change that you don’t know a lot of terms that are used when you’re starting a new project in an industry that is foreign to you. When you’re not aware of the curse of knowledge, a week later, you might use these terms as if you did it your whole life. Not all the users of your product might be as familiar with these terms so if you’re throwing them around like it’s nothing, these users might not understand. By writing these things down in the beginning, you can refer to them when you’re already familiar with them. This makes you aware and allows you to do something about it.
Know who you’re talking to
We’ve talked about mental models so you know every person has a unique view of the world and the products they use. Do your research to discover the main ways of working with your users. You can’t know everything but learning about your users does show you some first things on how to communicate with them.
We’re humans so it’s not if but when we will do something different than it was designed. Also, not everything can be expected. You can have all the time in the world to do your research and still stumble into contexts where users do something unexpected. You should stay curious, learn, and then improve.
Try different hats
When working in a specific environment you will get biased. It just happens because we’re people too. Try to be aware this is happening and take a step back. Get an overview of the project and try to approach it from different perspectives.
Show your work with other people in your team and explain why you made certain choices. There’s a big change that explaining it to others lets you figure out if it makes no sense or if something is missing. If not, they can give their opinion from a different and unbiased point of view.
The first step is to be aware and by reading this article you’re doing pretty well already. So well done!