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  • Nick Hague and Paul Hague

The curse of knowledge

Some time ago we worked for a dairy based in the north-east of England. Our survey showed that a number of customers had trouble opening the lids of some of their products. When we reported this to the management team, the production manager ran out of the meeting and returned with various pots which he skilfully and quickly opened. He could not be convinced that there was a problem opening his packaging.


Tim Harford, the undercover economist who writes for The Financial Times threw some light on this the other week. He told the story of his own challenge which was to take a covid test, pack up the sample and register the whole procedure online. Now Tim Harford has a brain of some size. He's written books called "How To Make The World Add Up", "The Data Detective", and "The Next 50 Things That Made The Modern Economy". These are to name but a few of his scribbles. In other words, if he is going to struggle with instructions, God help us. He describes how he was supplied with two sets of instructions which were confusing because they were not identical. There were components in the testing kits which were unexplained. There was an instruction to write down the parcel tracking number and an admonition as to how important it was to do so. As he said, this number could have referred to any of a dozen serial numbers as the kit was festooned with more barcodes than a branch of Tesco.


We've all been there haven’t we? And when it happens, we chide ourselves and think we are being thick. Apparently this problem is caused by "the curse of knowledge". This term has been coined by behavioural scientists who recognise that someone who is well informed on a subject (like the production manager in the dairy company) has difficulty appreciating the depth of someone else's ignorance. The person who wrote the instructions on Tim Harford's covid test kit knew exactly what a parcel tracking number looked like. It was so obvious to them that they didn't think to specifically describe it. We, the general public, are cursed because some clever Dick who is writing the instructions has the knowledge and assumes that it is common to us all.


It wouldn't be so bad if the designers of products and packaging listened to their customers rather than getting angry with them and claiming that they are idiots. Maybe it would be better if the instructions are written by someone like you and us – someone who is new to the subject and prepared to explain things in a simple and straightforward fashion. There is no substitute for walking in a customer’s shoes.

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