The Curse of Knowledge: What It is and How to Avoid It

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The Curse of Knowledge: What It is and How to Avoid It



When it comes to app development and app marketing, new apps have a few hurdles to surpass in order to achieve success. One of these hurdles is the curse of knowledge. This concept can affect all creative steps of the app’s development, from explaining the app to a marketing agency, to writing brand messaging, website copy, or ad copy. Continue reading in order to fully understand what the curse of knowledge is and how you can avoid it in order to be sure you are communicating the value of your app clearly. 


What is the Curse of Knowledge?

The curse of knowledge is most commonly defined as “cognitive bias that occurs when an individual, who is communicating with other individuals, assumes they have the background knowledge to understand” (Wikipedia).

The most famous experiential evidence of this is from Elizabeth Newton’s, 1990 Stanford University experiment of “Tappers and Listeners.” Newtown invited her peers to participate in the study as either a tapper who would be given a list of 25 popular tunes to tap out the tune to on a table, or a listener who would be tasked with guessing the name of the tune being tapped. 

Before they began tapping, Newton asked the tappers to guess the probability of their listening partner being able to correctly guess the name of the song. The tappers predicted that the listeners would be able to guess correctly 50% of the time. Yet the reality was that the listeners ended up only guessing correctly about 3% of the time.

How did this happen? The tappers who already knew the song titles were hearing the tunes in their heads as they tapped, making the song seem obvious to them. Meanwhile, the listeners who had no idea what each song was, were relying on rhythm with no tonal clues as to what the song might be. The tappers had all the information about the songs they were sharing and therefore couldn’t imagine the listeners struggling to guess correctly.

This is a strong illustration of how the curse of knowledge can affect you. You might think you’re giving clear instructions on how to use your app or sending a clear message on the type of solution it provides, while your users are actually struggling to understand. But don’t worry – once you realize what the curse of knowledge looks like, you can focus on circumventing it in your strategies.


Focus on Your Audience

The first way that you can avoid the curse of knowledge is to keep your focus on your intended audience. This means that instead of thinking like yourself, you need to think like them. Use the buyer personas you’ve created to get into the mindset of your hopeful users and figure out what language they find most accessible. This way you will find yourself with a captive audience, a captive audience meaning users help you to hit important KPIs by doing things like downloading, installing, and continuing using your app as time goes on. If you focus on catering to your primary audience, they are likely to respond favorably and help you grow to having a large audience by doing things like leaving positive reviews and even sharing your app with friends and family.


Be Open to a New Perspective

When you’ve been working on something for a long time it can be difficult to hear constructive feedback. But it is imperative that you hear from others, particularly other professionals that you may be working with. When it comes to partnering with a marketing agency, their perspective is crucial because they will be the bridge between you and the customer and they are familiar with the types of language and strategy that are more likely to reach an audience successfully. Furthermore, the agency’s entire job is to help you, so their feedback is the most likely to be clear and productive rather than destructive. If you’re on the same page with your marketing company about your app, they will be able to use their creative skills to communicate your app’s value with the right combination of flair and clarity.


Engage in Usability Testing

Once you’ve successfully defeated the curse of knowledge with your partners, it’s crucial to confirm that you can do the same with users. One way to do this is through usability testing with representative users. From your perspective, your app might function perfectly because you’ve worked with it so much that you don’t even notice the flaws that users might find fatal. Working with a test group allows you to optimize your app and remove deficiencies before presenting it to a larger group of people at launch. 


The best ways to avoid the curse of knowledge are to avoid assumptions and keep your language concrete. If you make the mistake of the Stanford tappers who believed that their perspective equaled the listeners’ reality, or if you give into the trap of trying to be trendy or catchy instead of explaining your app’s solution, you’ll have a very confused audience on your hands. Instead, continue to look at your product from the perspective of a new user and consider how you can most effectively bring them on board. This will keep your app accessible and help it increase in popularity.

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