Knowledge Curse

The other day I listened to an NPR article that discussed a concept called “the curse of knowledge” (Need reference/citation). The basic foundation of the concept was that the irony is that the more you know about a subject, sick the harder it is for you to explain it to somebody who doesn’t “get” it.

This isn’t a wholly new concept for me, but I’ve never heard it described that way. I think the first time I really saw this concept at work was when I was taking Calculus in college. Who is it who teaches calculus at the university level? The answer: people who loved math so much that they couldn’t think of anything they’d rather do with their lives than teach it to other people. These are people, for the most part, who have always “gotten” math. I suspect that generally, it has always been easy for them. Yet these are the people that are teaching math to the rest of us. (I was an English major, in part, because of my college calculus class.)

The concept of “knowledege curse” is a subject that should interest technical writers as well. After all, we are the user advocates who produce documentation, translating the product into concepts that common users can understand and use. Yet don’t we also suffer from the knowledge curse? I work in software documentation. I have to know my software inside and out in order to understand the complex relationships between various parts of the applications. Here’s the trouble, though: The more I learn about the products we sell, the harder it is for me to write about them in a way that non-experts will understand.

This is why audience analysis is so important for technical writers. And its why good technical writers are those who can overcome the curse of knowledge to produce documentation that non-experts can understand and use with ease.

Good documentation is hard to write, and it is hard to find. Too many writers are cursed with so much knowledge about the product they are documenting that it is very difficult to make it easy for others to understand.

Do you think that “knowledge curse” is real? How do you think it can be overcome?

2 responses to “Knowledge Curse”

  1. Boy do I feel your pain. I am the developer for a construction accounting software package and I can relate. I have found though that people do not read the documentation no matter how good it is. When asked support questions I ask if they have checked the manual. 98-percent of the time the answer is “No”.

    BTW, I like the theme change on your blog. 🙂

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