Nobody Knows What You're Talking About

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You know what you do so well, that you have a hard time relating and explaining it to those (the majority of people) who don’t know/do what you do.

That is "The Curse of Knowledge" as defined in Chip and Dan Heath‘s best-selling (and must-read) business book, Made To Stick. It was one of those lightbulb moments that helps one to realize just how much hyperbole and industry jargon we pump into everything we say and do. On top of that, the majority of people can’t even understand what you do for a living or what your product is and means to their lives.

It sounds crazy, but it’s true.

From a Digital Marketing point of view, it’s an order of magnitude that would stagger you and send you back to the drawing board in terms of how you market and communicate your messages.

Don’t believe me? Watch this: YouTube – What Is A Browser?

Do you still think that the majority of people really have a grasp of what’s happening on Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare?

(hat-tip: Maria from Twist Image who pointed me to: UX Magazine – These are your users… read and be horrified).


  1. Oh this doesn’t surprise me at all. It’s so important that those of us immersed in digital communication technologies keep in mind our target audience and their experiences. In teaching my classes, I show my students so many “new” tools and have learned over time never to make assumptions about what a group of people should know or have experience with regarding “computer” stuff.
    Dr. Elaine Young
    Assistant Dean, Division of Business
    Associate Professor, Marketing
    Champlain College

  2. Great post. It’s crazy to see that. It makes me realize why it’s so hard to get my workforce using apps like Co-Tweet or Yammer. There is only 1 or 2 out of the 50 or so I gave a presentation and sent extensive e-mails too making use of it. and maybe 20 or so of those 50 using the Google mail I set up for the company. Ridiculous!
    On a side note, did you see this great relative post over on JangoSteve?

  3. This is a great reminder that although most people use the web, they place no importance on the tools they use to get to the information. There are so many ways to interact with the internet, mainstream society can’t possibly stay current and thus they rely on what they already know (and what was loaded on their computer when they bought it). If you want a technology to be used by the majority of people, you have to embed it into their everyday life because it isn’t about the tools – it’s about the content.

  4. It is also important to remember your audiences’ world view when you talk to them about what you do. In many instances what you do is not important in their view of the world, its just like housekeeping (you don’t notice it unless it is not there). They really don’t give a damn, because they don’t need to expend the required mental energy to understand it.
    In the browser example above it is clear that people would only know what a browser was if it stopped working.
    For example, geeks spend a lot of time debating the various merits of Chrome vs. Firefox, that’s like debating the various merits of different types of petrol (gas), in the real world, it might be important to you, and not even make it onto your potential customer’s radar.

  5. Iraq Andy ? They don’t even know who their president is.
    Seriously I can’t believe people are so uneducated in this day and age. All I can say is Oy Vay.

  6. I could see how people could get flustered asking that question from time to time but 8%??
    It’s almost worst than this episode of “This Hour has 22 Minutes”:

    Thanks for sharing Mitch. A question for you though: where is the line between explaining the basic concept and insulting the audience’s intelligence?

  7. I had no idea that so many people didn’t have a clue. No wonder some of my clients look at me with glazed over looks when I’m talking about different browsers and compatibility. I knew people didn’t know the differences between using IE, Firefox or Safari but wow. I guess this really shows that from a coding perspective you really do have to consider all browsers and can’t ignore IE compatibility.
    Thanks for the great post.

  8. It is such a huge and fast moving paradigm shift it becomes a generational gap issue between early adopters and everybody else. Six months seems like a lifetime in terms of changes in technology and internet marketing trends. Not everybody gets it because they don;t have time to get it and I believe some of that has to do with the economy forcing marketers to look for new communication channels while their target audience is trying to find new revenue of their own.
    The question is are we in what we thought was the 4th Wave or just really entering the 5th as cognitive thinkers and futurists like Toffler, Shaw, et al.

    Just like anything in R&D and true disruptive innovation being implemented in the market place it takes a generation or two of consumers to catch up and catch on. It usually occurs after the dust settles and the options are condensed.

  9. I don’t really know how all the components of my car are working, but I use my car every day.

  10. Not surprised at all. It’s amazing how ahead of the technology/trends we really are…
    We must always remind ourselves with one question;
    Who else is in the “Fish Bowl”?
    Is it time to hit the market?
    I left my 10yrs Career as Executive-New Media Solutions at an Agency to start a new company. I’ve been in the kitchen developing new products/solutions since 2008. As a startup you can easily lose track and go to market before the market is actually ready for you.
    Always remind yourself…
    Who else is in the “Fish Bowl”?
    Is it time to hit the market?
    Leo Ferraro | PromoMee

  11. I encourage digital executives to talk to frontline customer support staff about their exchanges with customers and to request recordings or transcripts of customer enquiries as a quick and simple way to get a sense of their customers’ digital sophistication. It’s a worthwhile reality check, albeit distressing at times.

  12. I loved this video when I first watched it. Thanks for bringing it to light again.
    Completely agreed – Made to Stick is brilliant. I wrote an article summarizing some of the key points here:
    Looking forward to reviewing Six Pixels in the near future!

  13. Not surprised after 20+ years of being in the software industry. I have this conversation regularly. So many people just know what to click on without the desire to understand how the levels of software work together. Do they need to?
    Seriously I’m on the phone explaining to someone how to find their Windows Messenger icon because it disappeared off their desktop. I do think there is a level of responsibility here in learning to utilize the tools they are incorporating.
    Do you know how to fix your car or do you take it a mechanic. I know enough about my car to get regular oil changes and let the professionals guide the other maintenance factors.

  14. Well said! I’ve been tracking the levels of hyperbole in the media on my blog:
    and the stats show that the language we use at work is getting further and further divorced from the language we use in the rest of our lives. It makes us happy and, I guess, feel important – but often it leaves other people frowning and scratching their heads. Or, worse, it irritates them.

  15. Mitch,
    My intern reminded me about this very subject last week. She was conducting research for a travel piece and dismissed a blog in favor of online newspaper. All of that was fine, except she had them reversed.
    The public doesn’t see our definitions as much as much they see the communication. And I think you’ve done a fine job illustrating this.

  16. Thanks for this, Mitch.
    One thing I found interesting in the vid is how the Interviewer shaped the responses – most everyone assumed that ‘browser’ had something to do with Google, since he was from Google, and they shaped their answers accordingly.
    When we deal with our own Curse of Knowledge in our industries, we have to remember that our customers are probably going to FAKE the knowledge as much as possible.
    For example, I run a coffee shop on a college campus. Most of our customers are freshmen who don’t know Espresso from Folgers, so when we advertise our special of the month (right now it’s a White Passion Latte) and they ask what it is, we say, “Oh, it’s a Latte with Passion Fruit and White Chocolate.” We don’t realize that they have NO IDEA what a Latte is, but they play along, because they don’t want to look stupid.
    And then WE complain when they return the drink because they want something that “doesn’t taste like coffee.” Really, it’s OUR fault for assuming they had knowledge they clearly don’t have. We set them up to fail by not knowing our customers well enough.

  17. It’s a nice piece of (heavily edited, interviewer-led) vox pop but I’m not sure it does anything but remind you that terms some consider to be broadly understood may not be. But it would be wrong, imo, to try to extrapolate anything from this. My hunch would be that if you ask most people what Internet Explorer is you’d find that most get the difference between a browser and a search engine.
    Still important to use good signposting, and to make sure your ambiguity police never take a day off but most users get more than you think – it’s just that they may not get it the way you’d like them to!

  18. Do they really NEED to know what a browser is? Yes they use it every day and for us this is all very basic however, the important message here is that the audience get the message that is intended for them, and we can use this knowledge to take a step back and not assume that everyone knows these details.
    I use muscles every day which I have no idea what they’re called – I’d expect my doctor to ‘break it down’ for me in a way I can understand – not continue to use his/correct terminology.

  19. Here’s a quote from this post ( I wrote back in 2007…
    “Yes. They’re using an inferior browser. They’re shopping at big box stores. They buy crap to eat.
    So build your website so it’s at least functional in a crappy browser on dial-up, stock your stuff at Wally-World, and put out a plate of Slim Jims and Twinkies.”

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