Being an expert in your product makes you a bad teacher to users. by San Eckelboom | October, 2022

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 good. But as you gain more and more knowledge about a particular subject, you may not be the best person to teach others. It also means that when you become an expert in the product you’re delivering, you may not be the best person to teach your users how to use it. Let’s find out why

Woman raising her hand during a busy lecture.
Unsplash. Photo by Alyssa Garcia on

So let’s take the example of going to class at university. Perhaps most of these classes were boring and not useful. Why so? Well, these classes were created by experts on the subject. A typical lecturer goes through difficult information with lightning speed that leaves you feeling stupid or overwhelmed as a beginner. For them, it’s easy knowledge, so they accomplish it much faster. This is called the “curse of knowledge”. This means that the more familiar you are with a subject, the less likely you are to step into a novice’s shoes. When you already know a lot about the subject, it’s hard to imagine what it would be like for a beginner.

The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias that occurs when a person, while communicating with other individuals, unconsciously believes that others have a background in understanding.

Suppose a student approaches a professor to ask a question. Even after answering the student doesn’t understand what is happening so the professor explains it 3 more times. Even after this the student does not get it. After trying several times the professor gets frustrated and thinks the student is too stupid to understand.

You might think “he’s a lousy professor” and yes it is. In this case the student looks stupid but in reality the professor is making a fool. He was repeatedly explaining the matter in the same way. Because he already knows a lot about the subject, he was not able to step into the student’s shoes and understand the issue.

So now that you are familiar with the curse of knowledge, let’s find out how to deal with it as a product designer.

Female software engineer in meeting with colleague.
Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

Take the example from above and replace student with user and professor with your product. Users are not being stupid when they don’t know how to use the product, you are not explaining it properly. You probably know a lot about how a product works, what it does, and how you should be using it because you created it. Plus, everyone has different mental models which forces everyone to think differently about how something might work.

A mental model showing how something works and is different for everyone. We cannot store all the details of the world in our mind, so we use models to simplify the complex into understandable and manageable parts.

write it down

When starting a new project, write down the things you don’t understand. For example industry-specific words. One big change is that you may not know a lot of the terms that are used when you are starting a new project in an industry that is foreign to you. When you’re not aware of the curse of wisdom, a week later, you can use these words as if you’ve had it all your life. Not all users of your product may be familiar with these terms, so if you’re throwing them around like it’s nothing, these users may not understand. By writing these things down in the beginning, you can mention them when you are already familiar with them. It makes you aware and allows you to do something about it.

know who you are talking to

We talked about mental models so that you know that each person has a unique view of the world and the products they use. Do your research to find the main ways to work with your users. You can’t know everything, but learning about your users shows you some of the first things about how to communicate with them.

expect error

We’re human so it’s not, but when we’ll do something different, which is what it was designed for. Also, not everything can be expected. You can have all the time in the world to do your research and still stumble across contexts where users do something unexpected. You must remain curious, learn and then improve.

try different caps

You will become biased when working in a specific environment. It just happens because we are also people. Try to be aware that this is happening and take a step back. Get an overview of the project and try to look at it from different perspectives.

get opinion

Show your work to others on your team and explain why you made certain choices. One big change is that explaining it to others lets you figure out if it doesn’t make 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 are already doing great. So well done!

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