Breaking the Expert’s Curse

CIDM Information Management News March 2015: Breaking the Expert’s Curse

Breaking the Expert’s Curse

JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

Do you ever become so familiar with the products you are documenting that you forget what it was like to be a beginner? Do you try to compensate by explaining every button and field in the software because you don’t remember what was obvious? If so, you may be suffering from the Expert’s Curse.

In the February issue of the Harvard Business School Working Knowledge,1 Carmen Nobel describes the research of Ting Zhang, a doctoral student in Organizational Behavior at Harvard Business School. Nobel asserts that experts make terrible teachers. Yet, novices seek out experts, a common method of working for information developers who go to product developers to understand how the product works and how it will benefit the customers.

Unfortunately, experts have an empathy gap. They no longer remember what it was like to be a beginner. In fact, the same empathy gap occurs for information developers who become so familiar with the products they write about they have forgotten what a newbie needs to know.

Apparently, researchers like Zhang call this the “curse of knowledge.” Her focus is to discover how to break the curse by finding ways to help experts retain or rediscover the novice’s point of view.

If you’re like me, you can get pretty frustrated working with beginners. Why can’t they see what looks so obvious to me? Why do they keep missing the clearly visible signals on the screen or in the controls? How can I help them when I just don’t experience what they do?

One of Zhang’s primary recommendations is the same one I used when I was directing a large group of writers: “Make notes when you’re learning. Jot down the things that were unclear to you. Keep making those notes as you progress. Then, when you’re ready to write, go back to your notes to help you remember.”

Unfortunately, that recommendation loses its effectiveness if you keep working with the same product for months or years. Everything becomes familiar, that is, until they completely redesign the interface.

Zhang’s research looked at ways to help experts recover their novice points of view. She asked a group of 169 college students to record their summer-internship experiences in diaries. After two months, they received a questionnaire. Half of the students were sent their diaries, and half were not.

Then, the students were asked to give advice to future interns for the following summer. These new interns reviewed the advice and gave their feedback. As you might expect, the students who had reviewed their diaries gave much better, much more detailed and pointed advice to the newbies. The best advice was very specific, telling the new interns to “Make sure to seek out a mentor, and get that person to explain exactly what you’ll be doing.” The students who did not have diaries to reference gave vague suggestions like “you’ll learn a lot during the summer.”

In her second experiment, Zhang worked with a group of experienced guitarists, asking them to give advice to a group of beginners. She divided the experienced players in half, asking one group to prepare for the lessons by practicing as they normally would. The other half of experienced players was told to practice playing the guitar with the other hand, not the hand they usually played with. Those who fingered the frets with their right hands had to practice fingering with their lefts hands. You can just imagine how awkward that felt.

As a result of the hand shift, the experienced guitarists felt and sounded like beginners. After watching a video of a beginning, both groups were asked to make some suggestions to help. The hand-shift group had much more empathy with the beginners. They had rediscovered what it felt like to be new at playing.

Zhang then asked a group of beginning guitarists to review and evaluate the advice given by the experienced players. They clearly favored the advice from the experts who had relived the beginning experience. Like the student interns, the advice from the hand shifting group was much more explicit and detailed than the advice from the control group. The hand shifting experts were also a lot more sympathetic with the beginners, offering encouraging comments along with their suggestions.

The Harvard researchers haven’t yet conducted their experiment in a corporate setting, but they hope to. I would suggest that they use those of us involved in information development as a test case and that they include the larger collaborative team. I would want to bring together a product developer, information developer, trainer, and support team member.

I suspect, as Zhang does, that rediscovering what it feels like to be a newbie can feel quite uncomfortable for some team members. Even watching beginners during a usability test can be uncomfortable. I remember a lead developer, observing a customer trying the new software, exclaim to the usability team: “Where did you find such a dumb user?” We had to explain that this “dumb user” was the chief architect for their major customer. That lead developer became one of our strongest advocates for usability testing.

So here is my question: How do you, as an experienced information developer, regain the perspective of the novice?

  • Do you observe beginners trying to perform tasks with your products?
  • Do you ask inexperienced colleagues in your organization to test your instructions?
  • Do you make notes when you are first learning about a product or a new piece of software?
  • Do you have a well-documented profile of typical beginning users that details what they know, what they don’t know, and what is your responsibility to teach them?
  • Anything else?

I would love to hear from you about techniques you use to avoid the Expert’s Curse.

And just in case: here is the note that concludes Carmen Nobel’s article about Zhang’s research:

“Note to managers: If your organization is interested in participating in a field study on rediscovery, please visit The Research Exchange, or email tzhang@hbs.edu with the subject ‘Research Exchange Field Study.'”

Perhaps you’d be interested in helping to increase our understanding of how to communicate and be empathetic with those who are first learning to do what we so thoroughly understand.

1. Carmen Nobel, “How to Break the Expert’s Curse,” Harvard Business School, Working Knowledge, 23 Feb 2015.

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