Combatting the Curse of Expertise

In 1999, researchers from Stanford asked a deceptively simple question:

Can experts use their expertise to accurately predict how long it would take a novice to complete a complex task?

Or, put another way:

  • Can product designers and marketers predict how long it will take consumers to master a new product?
  • Can project managers predict how long it will take team members to complete tasks?
  • Can team leads predict a new employee’s ability to become fully ROI positive?

Accurate predictions in situations like these are important. Getting it wrong can lead to employee dissatisfaction, failure to complete projects on time, customer dissatisfaction and learner frustration and boredom. Not good.

The problem that the researchers found is that experts are notoriously bad this sort of prediction; when we’re an expert in a subject, we consistently underestimate how long it will take for a newbie to gain mastery. Even when they try to think back to when they were learning the concept for the first time, they STILL get it wrong. It’s called the ‘Curse of Expertise‘ and it’s the bane of each and every one of us, every time we have more knowledge than someone else about a given subject.

So what do you do to combat the curse?

You test.

Every course, every website, every product… everything can be tested.

The surest way to know how long it will take for a newcomer to master a task is to get them to do it. For a course, run a pilot. For a website, do usability testing. For a product, run a beta.

Just don’t fall victim to the curse of expertise. It’s great to be an expert – but that expertise has its boundaries and limitations. Trust testing to fill in the rest.