How to Break The Curse of Knowledge

The Curse of Knowledge. It haunts designers in everything we create. Its definition is simple, but its implications are immense.

The condition whereby the deliverer of the message cannot imagine what it’s like not to possess his level of background knowledge on the topic.

Garr Reynolds, Presentation Zen

We’ve all witnessed presentations from intelligent speakers that completely flew over our heads. We’ve all engaged with user interfaces that were nearly impossible to understand. The longer us designers labor over our work, the harder it becomes to distance ourselves from it.

Naturally, the importance of actually talking to those consuming our work only increases over time. Given that our ability to see our systems through the eyes of the average user becomes more difficult as we more holistically understand the systems we’re designing, we must trust users to ground us with perspective.

How do we continuously gather this perspective? How do we ensure that we constantly listen to and value input from the average user? I figured I’d offer a few nuggets of advice based on my own experience gathering and implementing user feedback:

1. Build processes to gather feedback

Avoiding The Curse of Knowledge started with talking to new users. It’s important to build legitimate processes around gathering feedback in order to maintain focus on the user perspective.

In my experience, this is really hard.

It’s hard finding people to talk to, especially when you have little to no users actively engaging with your designs. It’s hard convincing people you do find to talk to you. It’s tedious to schedule video calls with those people, and it’s even more tedious managing the conglomerate of notes you gather from everyone you talk to in a consistent way.

I recommend actually scheduling these activities into your calendar on a recurring basis.

Set aside an hour every Wednesday to identifying and reaching out to potential users to interview the following week.

Set aside an hour every Thursday to picking up on those conversations or reaching out to more potential users, if necessary.

Set aside an hour every Friday to finalize those interviews for the following week and prepare your note-taking tool of choice (I love Notion) for those interviews.

The following week, conduct the interviews! Rinse and repeat: If you don’t schedule time for these things, it’s easy to stop doing them.

2. Build processes to parse through feedback

Just as it is important to build processes around gathering feedback, it is also important to build processes around actually digesting that feedback.

First and foremost, be sure to summarize key takeaways from every interview a few days after they’re conducted. Waiting a couple days will help you reflect on what actually mattered from the conversation.

Once you’ve personally summarized your findings, it’s important to collaborate with one or more members of your team on a weekly basis to synthesize recent interviews into actionable insights and objectives. I recommend taking an hour or two at the end of each week to talk with your team (or even a random colleague or friend!) about what you learned from your recent interviews and how that might inform what you change about your design moving forward.

3. Build processes to implement feedback

Finally, gathering and parsing feedback from novice users is in vain without actually prioritizing its implementation. The best piece of advice I can provide on this front is to use standard agile methodology practices in your design work.

Run short weekly/bi-weekly sprints. Offer new ideas and consistently re-prioritize your work through sprint refinements. Prepare for future sprints through sprint planning. Improve your team processes through sprint retrospectives.

Following these commonly-used rituals is simply one of the easiest ways you can ensure that you are constantly re-evaluating the priority of the work you’re doing, thereby giving yourself the best chance of implementing critical user feedback into your designs.

Reynolds, Garr. Presentation Zen (Voices That Matter) (p. 80). Pearson Education. Kindle Edition.

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