How Little You Really Know

You have no idea how little your users really know. And that shows just how little you know.

You work in technology for a living. You’ve been using a computer since you were born. You are obsessed with learning new things. You are a nerd and you hang out with other nerds. You constantly think about the future. You love math. You spend the vast majority of your day staring at screens of varying sizes.

In other words, you are not normal.

You are utterly convinced that the things you know are obvious, but meanwhile you think you’re brilliant. That doesn’t make everyone else around you stupid; it just means that they know different things than you do. Trust me, you don’t know everything.

“The man who knows something knows that he knows nothing at all.” — Erykah Badu

“And if any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know.” — 1 Corinthians 8:2 (King James Bible translation)

If you do anything at all in the field of technology — if you are a designer, or a developer, or a writer, or a product manager, or a marketer, or a business strategist, or a venture capitalist, or a lawyer, or an entrepreneur — you are helping to create products and services that people use. If you don’t give a shit about those people, please do the world a favor and go away.

You think your target market is “everybody,” yet you have no idea just how little “everybody” knows. You tell yourself that your product or service is for the “average person,” but you really mean that it’s for yourself. You cannot possibly imagine how little domain knowledge about technology the average person on the street possesses. You need to watch this video that I recently saw on Matt J. McDonald’s blog:

Do you still think you want “everyone” to use your product or service? Are you using language and concepts that they’ll even understand?

What are you doing to find out what your users know and what they don’t?

Death to assumptions. You don’t know anything until you ask. Start today.

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  1. ejesse says

    Did you have a chance to see any of Nielsen's “avoid voodoo usability” talks in the late 90s/early 2000s? He tried to make a really similar point by first complimenting the audience for being smart and knowledgeable and then pointing out that every time they try to be clever they are asking their users to be MORE knowledgeable about computers than they are. I'm probably butchering the paraphrasing but it was over a decade ago that I saw the talk. I can't find any videos or transcripts :(

  2. says

    Always good to be reminded of this myopia – thanks Whitney!

    So let's see – what's a domain in which your readers are similarly clueless?

    How about these:

    * What's a seed?

    * What's a poem?

    * What is transubstantiation?

  3. hugohugo says

    You are mis leading the term. Under the context your are using here I see you are refering to a “Web Browser” and NOT a “browser” which is more general and most of the interviewed persons almost correctly deduced.

  4. says

    I was just reading about this last night in Don Norman's DOET:

    “There is a big difference between the expertise required to be a designer and that required to be a user. In their work, designers often become expert with the device they are designing. Users are often expert at the task they are trying to perform with the device”.

    I experienced this last year when developers were telling me the interface I had designed was too complex, that users would never understand it. Of course, having involved users I knew they loved it and knew exactly what to do with it.

    But then the developers couldn't understand when I would insist that certain interface elements be implemented in a certain way – it was a minor technical simplification, yet from a task perspective it had a huge impact.

    It seems we're speaking different languages sometimes … but the point is, users aren't idiots. They're smart, intelligent people who just want to get something done … just don't confuse them by giving them a pair of pliers when they're expecting a hammer.

  5. says

    Socrates was considered the wisest man in ancient Greece because he understood how little he actually knew. A little humility goes a long way!

  6. says

    In the kingdom of the blind the one eyed (wo)man is king….the reason people persist in overcomplicating things is for their own purposes, to show how great they are SO right . I have worked on both sides : for the client who didn’t even know what an intranet was until I helped them build one which they understood and in the process made them think I was a genius (“what? so we can keep our stuff in one place and access it from 30 offices? How did you do this?)and with the developer who literally quoted 50 hours for a minor change in usability because he simply didn’t agree with it. It’s about ego and the real world of users is not about ego it’s about building a site that is usable, accessible and , , hey why not?, fun for all those who go there. What’s your view on Google moving from it’s divine simplicity to compete ?

  7. says

    Great reminder. I would agree that the worst UX designer out there is the one who thinks she knows everything there is to know about the user. As consultants, we never reach the end of the long road of learning. Not only are our accounts changing, but so are our users and the way they perform their tasks. Nonetheless, I can sometimes appreciate how far I’ve come in this area. I recall recently interviewing a candidate who, when asked how she approached UCD, said that she met with the client and discovered their needs, then created a site map and met with the clients to make sure that it was usable. In my mind I thought, “maybe she thought I said client-centered design” but I’m fairly sure there would have been a day when I answered an interview question exactly the same way. I sometimes wonder how I ever secured employment in the first place! :)


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