The curse of knowledge: how it impacts you, and what to do about it

Posted on July 17, 2019
5 min read


If you’re responsible for introducing customers to a company or a product for the first time, there’s something you need to watch out for. It’s called the curse of knowledge, and it can affect anyone who creates brand messaging, website copy, tutorials, or onboarding processes. The curse of knowledge is widely defined as:

The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias that occurs when an individual, communicating with other individuals, unknowingly assumes that the others have the background to understand.

The curse of knowledge means that the more familiar you are with something, the harder it is to put yourself in the shoes of someone who’s not familiar with that thing. You can’t unlearn what you’ve learned, and you can’t see it with fresh eyes anymore. Plus, you have a much harder time explaining the basics to people who are new to the subject because you can’t remember what questions you had when you were new to the subject.

The story of tappers and listeners

In 1990, Elizabeth Newton, a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University, conducted a study to see how people's confidence in their communication differed from reality. In the study, participants were divided into two groups: tappers and listeners. Each tapper was partnered up with a listener. Tappers were told to pick a well-known song such as "Happy Birthday" and tap out the rhythm on the table. The listeners were asked to guess the name of the song. But first, the tappers were asked to predict how often the listeners would be able to guess the song. The tappers were confident. They expected the listeners would recognize the song about half of the time. Yet of the 120 songs tapped, the listeners only guessed 3 songs correctly. How were the tappers so wrong in their estimate? The problem was that the tappers could hear the melody in their head, but the listeners couldn’t. The tappers’ knowledge of the song caused them to miscalculate the listeners’ comprehension.

How the curse of knowledge can affect your business

Chances are, you’ve encountered the curse of knowledge in the real world. For example, think back to when you started your first job in a new industry. It’s likely that you weren’t familiar with a lot of the jargon your colleagues used right off the bat. But before long, you were probably using those terms as if they’ve always been a part of your vocabulary. As you become accustomed to the lingo of your new environment, it doesn’t take long for you to forget that other people don’t know what you know. If you’re not careful, that can spell disaster for your messaging and your conversion rates, not to mention your overall customer experience. While everyone at your company might understand certain concepts, industry terms, and proprietary names, your customer probably won’t. And we’re not just talking about jargon—your entire value proposition can suffer from the curse of knowledge. Have you ever encountered a company that provides a solution that you don’t understand? And, even after it’s been explained to you, you’re still left wondering what it actually does, how you would use it, and why you would need it?  This is likely a classic case of the curse of knowledge. Employees at that company have probably been interacting with that solution for so long, they can no longer tell how someone completely unfamiliar to the idea may react. Fortunately, we have a few easy tips to help you break this curse.

How to break the curse of knowledge

Get a fresh perspective

No matter how hard you try to put yourself in a first time user's shoes, it’s nearly impossible once you’ve been working on a product for even a short amount of time. The only way to assure that you’re on the right track is to get your idea, wireframe, prototype, and product in front of new users before its released.  It’s also helpful to get the perspective of fresh eyes encountering your product for the first time. What information do they need to know in order to understand your offering? What concerns or objections will they have right away?

Know your audience

To make sure that you’re presenting the right information (and the right amount of it) to your audience, find out how familiar your target customer already is with your company, industry, and product. If you have a niche market of customers who have a specialized skill set and are familiar with your industry, for example, then you don’t need to water down your language so that a layperson could easily understand it. However, you do need to make sure you aren’t making assumptions about how much those buyers already know about your product in particular. You may have different audience personas with different levels of expertise. Make sure you address the questions and concerns of the less-experienced customers while making it easy for more advanced customers to quickly scan through any information they don’t need.

Show, don’t tell

In many cases, it’s more effective to give concrete examples, rather than just explaining your value proposition. For example, use customer testimonials in your marketing materials to illustrate real-world applications of your offering. Screenshots, animations, and videos of your product in action can bring clarity and context to your website, tutorial, or onboarding experience.

Leverage human insight from new users

To get an unbiased perspective, you’ll want to collect feedback from your target audience—especially people who aren’t familiar with your offering. Not sure who that might be? Here are a few places to start:

  • New employees can be a great source of feedback on any confusing language you’re using—but you have to act fast. (The curse of knowledge kicks in quickly!) During your new employees’ first two weeks at work, have them make note of anything that seems particularly confusing in your public-facing materials. They might say things like, “At my last company, we did [XYZ] instead,” or, “I’ve worked in this industry for five years and I’ve never heard that word before.”
  • First-time site visitors are the perfect fresh eyes for testing out your web copy and your value proposition. Run a remote usability test with people in your target audience, and ask them to:
    • Describe what your company does in their own words
    • Point out what, if anything, is confusing about your messaging
    • Explain any additional information they would need before they were ready to make a purchase or sign up
  • Your existing customers can also point out anything in your onboarding process that would make them decide to use the product once and never return. They’ll be able to tell you whether your tutorial/help center was effective and whether they want to see any additional information before becoming a loyal customer for life. 

Avoid assumptions for better CX

The curse of knowledge is real and can happen to us all. Fortunately, your team can avoid this dangerous mistake with a little awareness and a lot of focus on your customer. By relying on consistent human insight from your target audience, you’ll help your team avoid assuming your customers know and understand as much about your products as you do, and will ultimately develop better products and experiences as a result. 

Want to learn more?

If you’d like to learn how UserTesting can help you understand your customers through on-demand human insight, contact us here.

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