Knowledge Blindness and Expert Blindness

September 12, 2009 |  by  |  Word-of-Mouth Marketing
  • SumoMe

Expert Blindness, and Knowledge Blindness:

A person once gave driving directions to someone who he knew was a first-time visitor to his town. “Drive down to the corner where the bank used to be, and make a right.”

An expert knows everything about an area except one thing: What it’s like to know nothing.

Knowledge Blindness” —and its extreme form “Expert Blindness” — refer to the things that people who are knowledgeable can’t see because they can’t experience what it’s like not to know: such as what words beginners don’t understand, how difficult a task is to do or learn, distinctions that non-experts can’t discriminate and appreciate, and implications  that are dependent on advanced knowledge.

It bears repeating: Knowledgeable people can’t see what it’s like to know nothing.

Knowledge blindness is the tendency to not be able to see the details, complexity, ambiguity and difficulty of  someone not familiar with an area. When something is familiar, it is automatic. The details and examples that built the concept drop out. It is now an abstraction. If you use that abstraction with a beginner, he/she won’t know what you’re talking about. So, experts can talk with each other directly in sweeping abstractions, without the specifics that the abstractions group, while non-experts have no idea what they’re talking about. To communicate with beginners, you nee to start with concrete specifics and real-world examples, then group them into abstractions. That’s why I started with the driving directions example above.

In marketers, this is extremely prevalent in product descriptions. Remember all the times you tried to follow assembly instructions or a product manual and it was gibberish? People do not realize that new customers do not understand even the most rudimentary terminology.

In my marketing consulting practice, knowledge blindness is why most of my clients come to me, although most don’t realize it. When I explain it, it seems to come as a pleasant shock. Pleasant because it’s great to be reminded how expert you are, but it’s a bit of a shock to realize that you can’t go back to experience things through the eyes of your prospects and customers. If you’ve invented the product or service, or been through the steps of its development, you have never actually experienced seeing it for the first time in its current, finished (for now) form.

This is particularly true in finding the decision blocks that are so central to my approach to marketing. You literally can’t see what people are getting stuck on: their vague, unarticulated qualms, worries about things that don’t exist, confusions, etc. Sometimes the customers themselves can’t tell you. You need an outside person who knows the customer decision making process to go through the process of learning about your product, and spotting the probably sticking points, then verifying it by fixing and testing.

If you keep wondering why people don’t get the “obvious,” especially in areas where you are an expert, you’ve got knowledge/expert blindness.

What are some of your favorite examples of Knowledge or Expert Blindness? Add them in the comments section below.

Current Examples to be added to:

Although they have made enormous strides, Apple still doesn’t get how hard it is for people to switch from Windows.


Update and Report: 6/26/11

I’ve been using the concept of  knowledge blindness as long as I can remember. So, I was knowledge-blind to its importance. Many people tell me that once they hear the concept of knowledge blindness, they start spotting it in themselves and others several times a day, and find themselves talking about it often. If you practice spotting knowledge blindness in yourself and others, your writing will improve, you’ll spot massive omissions in your persuasion materials, you’ll see competitive opportunities everywhere and your vision will improve.

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