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The Curse of Knowledge: How It Impacts You, and What to Do About It

| April 30, 2015
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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 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 could not. 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.

When you first start a job in a new industry, you have no idea what certain words and phrases mean. But before long, you can’t remember your life without those words in your vocabulary. You start to forget that other people don’t know what you know.

And if you’re not careful, that can spell disaster for your messaging and your conversion rates.

Everyone at your company might understand certain concepts, industry terms, and proprietary names, but that doesn’t mean your customer will.

And we’re not just talking about jargon—your entire value proposition can suffer from the curse of knowledge. Ever encounter a company that provides a solution that you simply don’t understand? 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. Employees at that company interact with its solution every day, and they can no longer remember how confusing it looks to a person with fresh eyes.

It’s especially a challenge for B2B companies, for businesses that sell a highly specialized product, and for people who have many years of experience in their field.

Luckily, there are a few things you can do to keep your own expertise from negatively impacting your messaging.

How to overcome the curse of knowledge

Think like a new user

Try to think from the perspective of someone who’s 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?

Understand your target customer’s expertise

To make sure 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, your industry, and your product.

If you have a niche market of customers who have a specialized skill set and are very familiar with your industry, then you don’t need to “dumb 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.

Use concrete examples

In many cases, it’s more effective to show than to explain. 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 to your website, your tutorial, or your onboarding experience.

Get fresh eyes

To get an unbiased perspective, you’ll want to collect feedback from people who are not yet familiar with your offering.

1. 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.”

2. First-time site visitors are the perfect fresh eyes for testing out your web copy and your value proposition. Run a user 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

3. Your existing customers can 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. You can run a user test, send a survey, or check in with your Support team to see what feedback they typically get from new customers.