Self-Service and the Curse of Knowledge

Curse of Knowledge

Tourist Problems

An American couple sits at a Paris café to order lunch. The salad looks good, so they order that…but then something happens.

Oh, and we’d like some ranch dressing please.”

The waiter looks at them confused.  

They repeat.

Ranch dressing.”

He’s still confused… probably thinking, Ranch dressing? – Dressing that comes from a ranch?  A dressing ranch…what does this have to do with a salad?

So they raise their voices with emphasis.


It’s obvious what they want, but why can’t the French waiter pick it up?

The Curse of Knowledge

The problem doesn’t belong to the waiter, but the American couple. Their fluency with English, and the fact that ranch dressing is a common American condiment, makes them overestimate the waiter’s chance of understanding.

Knowledge is power, but it creates barriers to communicating. This is called “the curse of knowledge.” People with a high level of expertise have a hard time communicating with novices because they take prior knowledge for granted.

How this Relates to Self-Service

Part of the reason why people don’t read knowledge articles is because they’re hard to understand. Employees find an article, try to understand it, give up, call support, and never come back.

The people writing your articles know their stuff, but they’re writing for business users. They forget what it’s like to not have their technical knowledge, so they have a hard time communicating. This is the curse of knowledge in action, and the effect is worse than you’d think.

In 1990, an experiment conducted by Stanford graduate student, Elizabeth Newton, illustrated the effect. A group of “tappers” were asked to tap the melodies of popular songs. A second group of “listeners” listened to the tapping and were asked to guess the names of the songs. The tappers estimated the chance of the listeners correctly guessing the song was 50% (everybody knows Ba Ba Black Sheep”). But the results said differently. Only 2.5% of the listeners were able to figure out the songs.

You may think your knowledge articles are clear, concise and free from jargon, but you can never be too careful.

A study from another Stanford grad, Pamela J. Hinds, showed that seemingly simple instructions can be difficult to understand. She asked experts at a cell phone company to predict how long it would take new users to learn and perform certain tasks from directions. Experts underestimated significantly. They guessed it would take them 13 minutes, when it actually took 33.

Solving the Problem

So you have this huge database of information that people don’t use because it’s hard to understand. What can you do?

Deal with the length and simplicity of your articles directly. Consider the following:

1) Shorten Articles

When people search a knowledge base it’s because they have a question. A single knowledge article can contain answers to many questions. If you create one article per question, it will greatly simplify what you have.

2) Simplify Language

While you’re in the process of breaking down your knowledge articles into bite-sized chunks, audit the language you use. Take out abbreviations and use terminology that is universally understandable. Use the Flesch Kincaid readability test to assess the readability of your writing. It uses sentence length and syllables per word to infer a reading grade level. Aim for 6-8th grade readability.

3) Uniform Formatting

Keep formatting in mind. Consistency is key. If every answer looks different, employees will never know what to expect. You want to keep them comfortable. Create a template for what an answer should look like, and stick to it.

The Results

Controlling for the curse of knowledge will help get people to use your knowledge base, but it’s not the full solution. Check out our articles on “How a Stanford Ph.D. would approach Self-Service,” and “Improve Self-Service Adoption with this Simple Hack” to really supercharge your efforts.

If it seems daunting to simplify your knowledge base, check out our website. We use machine learning with human oversight to transform your articles for you. It’s then stored in question and answer format and made accessible from where employees are working.

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Chris Hill

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