The danger of knowing too much

24 April 2015

Have you ever looked at a web page and found you have more questions than answers? If you’re anything like me, this happens to you quite often.

The other night, I was trying to book a hotel room for the family – me, Mr Man and our rug-rats. We wanted a room for one night and preferred to have a separate room for the offspring (privacy when sleeping is a key requirement).

Simple right? Wrong.

I found rooms that slept 5 (we have three rug-rats). I found rooms with the option of double beds and bunks. I even found a whole house for rent.

What I couldn’t be sure of was whether the room we wanted had all three single beds in the adjoining room (we’ve been caught out before).

Such a small detail, but it meant the difference between me booking the room or looking elsewhere. One little detail lost that hotel a booking.

Now the rest of the site was lovely, pretty pictures of the rooms, clear rate information but that one detail, one the person who built the site could easily find out, but hadn’t thought to highlight, didn’t make it onto the site.

There’s a fairly simple explanation for why this information wasn’t on the site. The person building the site hadn’t thought to include it. Why not? They were focusing on the things they wanted to promote about the hotel, they weren’t thinking about the details people might want to know.

They’d just spent who knows how many hours thinking of all the attractions of the room – bar fridge, microwave, an iron and ironing board – lots of hotel stuff.

The room looked lovely, if it weren’t for that one question I’d have booked it in a heartbeat.

These kinds of information gaps are the result of what is called the ‘danger of too much knowledge’. If I already know something, it doesn’t always occur to me that someone else might not know it, or that they might even want to know it.

Because the person who built the site knew where the beds were, it didn’t occur to them to spell it out for each room. They might not have children, or they might like sharing a room with their children, so the location of the beds wouldn’t be an issue for them.

This kind of communication gap can happen outside the web too:

Your communication could leave your colleague, friend or other half with only half the information they need.

You have context that they don’t – you might even have had the whole conversation in your head but only half of it made it to your mouth – it’s very easy to miss out details when they’re already in your head.

When you’re explaining something to another person, you’re much more familiar with the concept you’re trying to communicate than they are – it’s in your head after all.

The difference between these other forms of communication and your website is that your colleague, friend or partner can ask you for more information.

You web visitor can’t. Well they can but why would they when it is easier to just go to a different website that provides them with the information they want.

So how do you create web pages, and other forms of communication, that don’t have these information gaps in them?

There are a couple of things you can do:

  1. Question, question, question – interrogate your content. Try to think of every question you want your content to answer and test it against those questions.
  2. Give your content to someone else and ask them to do the same thing.
  3. If you’re writing for an external site, with an audience of customers, ask the call centre what their main queries are. Make sure your content addresses all those queries.
  4. Most of all – test your content with real users. Get them to try all the tasks your site needs to satisfy and see what questions they come up with.

A good technique to use for any kind of communication is to put yourself in the shoes of the person you’re communicating with. Ask yourself “what do they need to know?” not “what do I want to tell them?”

The key to good communication – communicate for your audience, not yourself.