The dreaded curse of knowledge! <thunderclap> One of the few psychological phenomena that’s actually as scary as it sounds. If you’ve done any reading on cognitive biases, you’ve probably heard of it. Here’s a common definition:
“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 key phrase is “unknowingly assumes.” In plain English, the curse of knowledge causes mistakes because it’s difficult to remember what life was like before you knew something.
The curse of knowledge strikes when you’re not looking. It sabotages you just when your knowledge is strongest, your confidence highest. It makes you misjudge how another person views, understands, or reacts to something, and because it’s inherently difficult to notice, it can cause real damage before you catch the mistake.
The curse of knowledge is especially dangerous for product people because we can’t do our jobs without true empathy and correct understanding of how other people think, from our customers to the C-suite. This post outlines some important ways the curse of knowledge afflicts product people in particular, with some insight from veteran product managers on how to stay vigilant.
The Curse of Customer Knowledge
When we focus on the same customer for an extended period of time, we need to consciously remember that like all things in life, our customers change. Their habits, goals, and challenges develop over time and therefore, our understanding of them and the solutions we build for them need to evolve as well.
-Lauren Kearney, Lead Product Manager, AI at Unity Technologies
Effective product people are experts on our customers, which makes us particularly susceptible to the curse of knowledge. When you’ve spent months or years studying the needs and habits of your customer, it’s nearly impossible to recreate the mindset of someone who only knows the basics.
The curse strikes when we unknowingly assume (there it is again!) that others have the same knowledge of our customers. If your team looks at you like you have three heads when you use shorthand generalizations like “Users don’t care about…” or they don’t see what’s so obvious about a proposal that you think is obviously supported by customer insights, you might be afflicted by the curse.
If you forget to provide adequate context about the customer, your team (including you) ends up confused, frustrated, and lost.
The curse of customer knowledge can also strike when you’re dealing with customers directly. If you’ve interviewed 14 data scientists who say similar things about their work, you might unknowingly assume the 15th knows what the others said. This feeling of familiarity can help build rapport with customers, but it can also blind you to the variety and overlooked aspects of their experiences, which is antithetical to good design.
We all know that the motivation behind the loudest voices, the most prolific but ultimately minority Yelp reviewers, is strong opinions – whether positive or negative. It’s the same intensity of emotional valence that drives NPS results.
As Product Managers, especially in B2B, we’re seduced by the ease of confirming our theories when we talk to the customers who are most willing to express their opinions. Instead, we need to resist this easy confirmation of bias, and exercise the discipline to track down a truly representative cohort of customers. Only then can we confidently identify the problems we need to solve.
-Jem Sweeney, Product Manager
How to break the curse of customer knowledge:
Keep your team apprised of customer and user insights as you uncover them, and be generous with context when you’re prioritizing, proposing a solution, or describing a problem.
During customer research, assume as little as you can about what the customer thinks or knows. Don’t short-circuit the process – be sure to understand the customer as they are, not as you might assume “customers” are. Even in contexts like B2B where users are often industry veterans, it can be surprising how much knowledge and perception varies when you don’t impose your own context.
The Curse of Organizational Knowledge
Anyone who has spent a meeting being buried under unfamiliar acronyms and jargon is a victim of the curse of organizational knowledge, and product managers are at particular risk of falling prey to it.
Being an effective product person requires collaborating and communicating with nearly every function in your company, which means learning a bit about every department and stakeholder. Unfortunately, becoming “multilingual” in the jargon from multiple silos means more opportunities to use the wrong jargon with your audience. A product manager might know both marketing and developer lingo, but If you throw “ACOS” (average cost of sale) at your engineers and “MVC” (model view controller) at your marketers without context, it might not go so well.
How to break the curse of organizational knowledge
When talking about subject matter A with someone who works in specialty B, diligently de-jargonize your language. A good rule of thumb is never be the first to use an acronym in a conversation, and if you have to, spell it out the first time. When in doubt, explain terms of art in discussions with non-experts. Remember that co-workers won’t always interrupt to ask for a definition if they don’t know a word you’ve used, and over-explaining is better than under-explaining. These habits will also make your communication easier to follow in general.
The Curse of Competitive Knowledge
Product people should have a solid grip on the features, pricing, competitive standing, and value propositions of their competitors. When you know everything about the competitive landscape, the curse of knowledge can make you misjudge how your customers view your product relative to the competition. It’s easy to forget your customers usually know far less about the market than you do. When that happens, it can make you overlook perfectly good solutions because you implicitly “know” they are “too common”, “not compelling”, “don’t sell”, and so on.
This is different than rejecting a solution because you have explicit knowledge that it won’t perform in the market. That’s your job, and it’s a primary motivation for doing competitive research in the first place.
The curse of competitive knowledge is more insidious than that – it sneaks in before you even say the idea out loud or write it down. A solution occurs to you, and because you know so much about the competition, it seems so obvious that you unknowingly assume your customers also see it as obvious, and not in a good way. You reject the solution out of hand, before you’ve thought it through.
It also cuts in the other direction. When you have a strong command of your competitors’ features, it’s easy to judge whether a given idea would give your product an edge. If you know for a fact that your idea would be objectively superior to the competition, the curse of competitive knowledge makes it very easy to implicitly assume your customers must see it the same way. This leads to the all-too-common and tragic trap of building a “better” product that real customers don’t understand or don’t want.
Using competitors to define the market and the potential surface area of your product quickly leads down the path of mediocrity. Allowing your competitors to dictate your product vision and roadmap puts you at the mercy of their (possibly flawed) understanding of customers and the market. Competitor products can be an inspiration, but not a roadmap. While you may be tempted by your go to market team to focus on competitive feature differentiation, your ultimate guide needs to be validating and addressing actual customer pain points.
-Brandon Keao, Director of Product, Core, Bitly
How to break the curse of competitive knowledge
When ideating or prototyping, resist the feeling that a given solution is too easy, too simple, or not interesting enough relative to the competition. Vet all ideas and solutions based on articulable criteria from the beginning, and try not to filter anything until after ideation. Let your customer decide what’s valuable to them, don’t let the curse tell you that a feature or product concept isn’t competitive or compelling based on your own implicit knowledge. Likewise – you can never know with absolute certainty that a feature is superior until your customer tells you it is.
The curse of knowledge hits everyone, but product people are particularly susceptible. So throw some salt over your shoulder, rub a lucky penny, knock on wood, and remember that you can never know too much, but you also can’t go back to not knowing. The curse of knowledge will always be with us, but you can ward it off by building good habits. Provide context, avoid jargon, and let the customer decide.