The curse of knowledge prevents us from seeing the world as our customers see it. To demonstrate this curse, try this experiment with a friend. Think of a popular song like “Jingle Bells” or “Happy Birthday.” Then tap out the melody for your friend and ask him or her to try to guess what song it is.
From the sender’s point of view, the melody is playing in their head as they tap out the tune. In clinical tests, if asked to bet on the probability that their friend would correctly identify the tune, about ½ said the other party would recognize it.
However, from the listener’s perspective, the tapping sounds only like Morse Code. In fact, only about 2% of the listeners were able to correctly identify the tune. The fact that the sender thought the listener would identify the melody 1 out of every 2 times while it was actually closer to 1 in 50 is the curse of knowledge.
An often-cited example of the curse of knowledge is encapsulated in the story of a hardware store that sells drill bits. The salesperson thinks that the customer is there to buy drill bits, however, the customer is actually buying the holes that the drill makes so he can hang a family picture.
In business, we have knowledge that the customer does not have. No matter how hard we try, we can’t unring the knowledge bell. Therefore, there is an imperative for businesses to test assumptions with real customers prior to going through the expense of development and implementation of new ideas.
I remember a case when I worked for Digital Equipment Company. We wrote a manual about how to unpack and install a new printer. One of the steps was to uncage the printer head, which was secured only for shipping purposes. Since the printer was considered user installable, we gave the new printer and the manual to a secretary. We asked her to follow the instructions and install the printer. When it came to the step about uncaging the printer head, the manual said, “Cut the tie-wrap that holds the printer head in place for shipping.” Unfortunately, she was not familiar with what a tie-wrap was and we watched in horror as she cut the data cable that connected the printer head to the printer’s circuits. As writers, we had assumed everyone understood what a tie-wrap was because we suffered from the curse of knowledge.
One technique used in businesses to expose and overcome the curse of knowledge is to employ the “5 Whys” technique. By repeatedly subjecting your answer to the question “why?” you can often get to the core of the matter and see what the customer sees. Here is how it might work in practice.
“I sell drills.” Why?
“So customers can drill holes.” Why?
“So they can insert a molly into the hole.” Why?
“So they can hang a picture.”
In the end, the salesman is not selling drills, but a tool to help the customer hang his picture. While this might be a simple example, often the customer has no idea they need a drill. They just know they have a problem; they want to hang a picture and they think they need a hole in order to do that.
Do your solutions and answers suffer from the curse of knowledge?
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