The Art of Forgetting Your Own Product

File this under “Ignorance is Bliss” — As product builders, we have a deep understanding of how our product works, from a functional point of view (i.e. how to get a task done) to the value proposition (how to use it right and get the right value out of it). And there lie two big problems: If you (& your team) know it so well a) how you explain to users, and b) how do you identify blind spots on your UX.

This is scientifically known as the Curse of Knowledge. Although the research that identified it is from 40 years ago, the first time I heard about it was in the book Made to Stick. Even the Wikipedia page for this cognitive bias is only two years old. So, more likely than not, you have not put a name to it, but you know it well because you certainly experienced it. It’s when you try to explain something to someone and they don’t get it and you think they are stupid when in reality you are missing steps that you assumed they know about it.

Product Education

Nowhere in your product the Curse of Knowledge shows up more often than on your product’s own documentation, marketing material, tooltips, and hints. It might be obvious to you that “Connections” should mean People (if you work at LinkedIn), but for others that might be confusing as hell because there are other meanings, particularly in the context of software and social network.

It’s not unusual for people to read the content of your product homepage (or app description) and still not get it. Actually, when I review and screen companies who submit to TechStars, SXSW Accelerator, or other programs, I always feel like writing a blog post on how not to create a homepage. It takes a while for me to unpack all that language in what it’s actually trying to say.

Turns out that a video is worth a thousand words (not an image, a video). I really like the short videos that many companies create to describe their product. It’s usually done by a third-party company which makes the language a lot more accessible and colloquial. Yes, there is research proving that videos reduce homepage conversions, but that’s probably because people got it once they watched the video and learned the product wasn’t what they were looking for, instead of signing up to find out later.

And since we mentioned third-party doing your video, that’s a great way to get out of the Curse of Knowledge. Get some consultant, copywriter, friend, or even a new user to describe back to you the things they did, how they would tell another person, etc.

Product Experience

Yes, learning about the product should not be a separate experience, but for this post, I’m talking about it in two pieces. Although product education is where the Curse of Knowledge is the most obvious, your product experience is where it creates the biggest negative impact. When we know too much about how things are interconnected on our product, how changing a setting affects the downstream experience, or what connecting a third-party service will do to the experience, we have a problem.

We think these tasks are easy and people will get them. And then we add more features, make the product more awesome and the users who have been with your product for months or years have no problem because they are into the Curse as well and they don’t complain.

No product, in my opinion, represents this best than Google Adwords. I used Adwords as soon as it came out and it was an incredibly trivial and great product. There wasn’t much to learn and getting maximum value for your investment of time was easy. If you have never used Google Adwords, or if you haven’t used it for a while, go check it out. It’s a mess of concepts, layers of indirection, and ad lingo, that for the average small business advertiser it’s absolutely daunting. Do you know why it’s this way? Because the people working on it knows too much! They can’t unlearn. They have the Curse.

The spell to break the Curse

Sorry, there is no magic spell. But there are two workarounds.

Let me acknowledge there are a few people who are special. They were born storytellers and having more depth of knowledge about a product doesn’t seem to affect how they tell the story to newbies. I’m not a storyteller, so I had to find workarounds of the Curse.

My primary go-to strategy is to take a half-day off. Not from work, but from my previous knowledge of how my product works. I open my browser in incognito mode or uninstall my app, and start as if I was a new user. First, by finding it on Google or in the App/Play Store, reading the copy, going through the signup and onboarding, following all the instructions, and trying to understand the concepts as if I didn’t know them. This exercise alone allows me to produce 20-page long documents of what’s wrong with the product, from minuscule things around the copy (“we use the word Add App here but Add Device there”) to big problems in the information architecture and the value prop we are trying to create. Sometimes this exercise is devastating because you find so many problems with your product, but it’s better for you to find it and take the time to fix it than to just be ignorant and failing.

A second technique is to get someone who is not part of the Curse but committed to spending the time and giving you an in-depth look at your product. You can buy that, like a consultant. You can get a friend or family member to do it for a couple of hours — but you can only do it once. Or, you can get new employees to do it as well. It’s actually a mandatory part of my employees to provide with a “first impressions” document at the end of their first week, which includes a list of problems or questions about the product.

Marcelo Calbucci

Marcelo Calbucci

I'm a technologist, founder, geek, author, and a runner.