How to avoid the "curse of knowledge"

    What is the curse of knowledge?

    The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias that occurs when an individual or team wrongly assumes the people they are attempting to communicate with have the background knowledge to understand their messages. It's a human failing that once we know something, it can be almost impossible to adopt the outlook of someone who doesn't.

    • If you are involved in selling a product or service online, watch out for the curse of knowledge.

    • The curse of knowledge can significantly impact the effectiveness of copy and web content intended to inform and influence your users.

    • Think of the curse of knowledge as knowing your product too well but not knowing your users not well enough.

    What damage does it do?

    The curse of knowledge can devastate the effectiveness of your messaging and ravage your conversion rates. Your entire value proposition can suffer. We've all visited a website and not understood or misunderstood what it is offering. Even after consuming more content, we wonder what the proposition is, how we would use it, and why we would need it.

    Digital teams quickly become immersed in the rationale of their product, its features, and its benefits. When they communicate these, they tend to overlook the wealth of information and understanding in their heads. Their target users, who aren't privy to the background and logic behind the communication, often see only obscure phrases. As a result, the messages are challenging to understand and do not resonate. Users just don't get what you are trying to say.

    A great example

    In 1990, a Stanford University graduate student in psychology named Elizabeth Newton illustrated the curse of knowledge by studying a simple game in which she assigned people to one of two roles: "tapper" or "listener."

    • Each tapper was asked to pick a well-known song, such as "Happy Birthday," and tap out the rhythm on a table. The listener's job was to guess the song.

    • One hundred and twenty songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only three of the songs correctly: a success ratio of 2.5%.

    • But before they guessed, Newton asked the tappers to predict the probability that listeners would guess correctly.

    • They predicted 50%. The tappers got their message across one time in 40, but they thought they would get it across one time in two. Why?

    When a tapper taps, it is impossible for them to avoid hearing the tune playing along to their taps. Meanwhile, all the listener can hear is a kind of bizarre Morse code. Yet the tappers were amazed by how hard the listeners had to work to pick up the tune.

    Once we know something (in this case, the melody of a song), we find it impossible to imagine not knowing it. Our knowledge has "cursed" us. We have difficulty sharing it with others because we can't readily re-create their state of mind.

    Conquering the curse of knowledge

    No matter how hard you try, once immersed in a product, it can be impossible to put yourself in a new user's shoes.

    The only surefire way to know that you're on target is to put your concept, prototype, or website in front of users who fit your target profile but are unfamiliar with your offering.

    Well-designed user testing will tell you how well new target users understand your proposition, what content is working in your favour, what isn't and why. You can test the all-important first impressions and then how well users understand your proposition after a more natural browse:

    • How clear is your proposition to new users?

    • How would new users describe what you offer in their own words?

    • Where does any confusion or uncertainty arise around your proposition?

    • What questions do new users still have about your proposition?

    • What more information do new users need before taking positive action?

    • Do new users regard your proposition as different or unique?

    • How much do new users value your proposition?

    • What might cause new users to abandon?

    • What would make new users value your proposition more?

    • How desperately do new users want and need your proposition?

    User testing will tell you how well your proposition is communicated and where and why your messaging and content are falling short. These insights will help your team understand where the curse of knowledge is threatening your success and encourage them not to assume the amount of knowledge your users have.

    User testing is one of the best ways to improve how you communicate your proposition, drive user engagement and optimise conversions.

    Userfy Can Help You

    Please give me a shout to discuss how to avoid the curse of knowledge and optimise your messaging, content and user experience.

    Phil Randall (Owner at Userfy)


    Call: 07712669935


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