Beginner’s mentality

By: Maria Matveeva

Many people consider us UX or Web experts, and experts are clearly the best people for the job. But we know we have a significant blind spot - our extensive knowledge of the system makes us less likely to see the potential problems a novice might encounter. Anyone who is very familiar with a system, a discipline, or a product has put some distance between them and their beginning level challenges that cause them to develop an expert blind spot.

I am sure you are familiar with this situation: you’re invited (or invite yourself) to an event at a university campus. You arrive a bit earlier than you needed, so you can orient yourself in the unfamiliar space. The map on your phone is only accurate to the nearest block, so you get a campus map and try to find room 41-B in the Humanities building named after someone important. You feel stupid.

This is what campus maps often look like: An old map showing a campus as an island surrounded by unknown waters

The reason most outsiders find campus maps confusing and difficult to use is the shift in the frame of reference.

For someone who lives or works on campus, the frame of reference is relative to the borders and shape of the universe that is the university (or corporate, or hospital) campus. They might consider their office to be “in the far North corner” relative to the outline of the campus on a map. Or, they might think of themselves as “right in the middle of the Art Department”. The Art Department here is amorphous: it’s something that may either span two city blocks, or half of a floor in a physical building.

For an outsider, the frame of reference is still the surrounding landscape. They may not know precisely when they entered the school campus (there is no painted border on the ground) or that they are in its top left corner. The “you are here” marker on the campus map helps, but it still takes a while to adjust to the landmarks differentiated by department, not by road or city block. To find a building, they are forced to adapt to a new system of coordinates.

Work with an outsider

I often see this situation reflected in the websites of large institutions. When someone very close to an institution thinks of how their web presence may be organized or used, they inevitably do so with the influence of all the expertise they have. They can’t help it - they “live” inside the campus, and they are good at what they do.

There are many examples of this kind of insider thinking: organizing content by internal structure (instead of user need), breaking up a university website into Athletics, Academics, and Arts (which one contains the event I want to attend?) or assuming that a typical user has even a basic understanding of specialized terminology and concepts.

This is by no means a treaty against specialized knowledge and perspective. The insider knowledge of an industry expert makes a product good, their know-how makes it work. But the outside perspective of a novice-expert truly helps make a product findable and usable.

To attract new customers or visitors, a product needs to make sense to someone unfamiliar with it in their own broader frame of reference. To ask the right questions, to establish user goals and needs, and to judge the effectiveness and clarity of a product, we need both the insider and the outsider perspective.