The Importance of Ignorance in UX Design

Yuval Noah Yarari, a historian and philosopher, wrote in his 2016 book Sapiens, on the power of ignorance in modern science.

The willingness to admit ignorance has made modern science more dynamic, supple and inquisitive than any previous tradition of knowledge. This has hugely expanded our capacity to understand how the world works and our ability to invent new technologies.

Yarari argues that without this admittance of ignorance, civilizations would have to rely on knowledge passed down over generations. This reliance on the passing down of knowledge would mean that if there wasn’t information about a specific subject, then it must have meant that the subject was not important and therefore not worth the time to investigate. This new admittance of ignorance, on the other hand, is key to preventing any idea or theory to go unchallenged.

This simple notion, of allowing oneself to acknowledge ignorance, is also critical to user experience design. A UX designer who admits his or her own ignorance opens themselves up to the possibility of learning, it allows designers to look beyond themselves for answers. The question is, where should designers look for answers to their UX problems? The answer is clear: from end users via direct observations and research. This answer reminds me of a phrase that I have heard many times:

"You can't read the label if you're in the jar"

A UX designer cannot simply determine the right solution to a problem based on their own personal preference. Therefore, they must seek knowledge outside of themselves, and the most logical place would be to interview the users who are the intended audience for the experience they are designing.

Jared Spool, a speaker, writer and co-founder of UIE has an interesting insight into teams looking beyond themselves. He writes:

As we’ve been researching what design teams need to do to create great user experiences, we’ve stumbled across an interesting finding. It’s the closest thing we’ve found to a silver bullet when it comes to reliably improving the designs teams produce.

Jared speaks to a key outcome of admitting ignorance, that all team members need to be “exposed directly”, as he puts it, to real users. As we ponder this, it’s clear that the insights need to be determined along side your fellow teammates (including Product and Engineering) and cannot be simply shared in a presentation afterwards. It’s the experience of joint discovery that allows a team to acknowledge their ignorance and unlock knowledge.

Consider the greek myth of Cassandra. As the daughter of Priam, the King of Troy, she was favored by Apollo who gave her the gift of prophecy, but once she spurned his advances she was cursed with her prophecy never being believed. Her most famous prophecy was the Trojan Horse, had the Trojans believed her, Troy might not have been sacked by the Greeks. This, of course, is a cautionary tale of ignorance and an unwillingness to believe someone with second-hand information or insights.

The Cassandra Syndrome is based on this myth and is applied when valid alarms are not believed. This can also be applied to user experience design, as UX designers and UX researchers present their findings from research, which can often not be believed by other team members and stakeholders. Of course first-hand empirical evidence, Exposure Hours as Spool puts it could easily remedy this situation.

Since sorrow never comes too late
And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
‘Tis folly to be wise. – Excerpt from Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College by Thomas Gray

There is truth to Thomas Gray’s poem above, where he laments the days of his youth. Ignorance IS bliss when progress is not the goal. However, admitting ignorance and exposing teams to end users will expose insights and allow teams to discover new solutions.

For until you can admit what you don’t yet know, it’s virtually impossible to learn what you need to. –Think Like a Freak - Stephen D. Levitt (Author), Stephen J Dubner (Author)

If you’re ready to admit ignorance in the name of progress, expose your teams to your intended users by running a
to kickoff your user research, generate personas, build a product strategy, and iterate on product designs for your next prototype.

For until you can admit what you don’t yet know, it’s virtually impossible to learn what you need to. –Think Like a Freak – Stephen D. Levitt (Author), Stephen J Dubner (Author)