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The Curse of Knowledge

August 9, 2007

I recently read a great book by brothers, Chip and Dan Heath called Made to Stick.

It’s basically a book about how to make ideas stick. It’s a terrific read and I would highly recommend it to anyone who teaches chemistry, NMR, or anything for that matter. There are some great insights in the book.

In the book they talk a lot about the Curse of Knowledge. From the book:

Lots of us have expertise in particular areas. Becoming an expert in something means that we become more and more fascinated by nuance and complexity. That’s when the Curse of Knowledge kicks in and we start to forget what it’s like not to know what we know. At that point, making something simple can seem like “dumbing down.” As an expert, we don’t want to be accused of propagating sound bites or pandering to the lowest common denominator. Simplifying, we fear can devolve into oversimplifying.

In the business of software development, we run into this all the time. Fact is, we are experts in our own software. Many of us have been working for the company for a while and using the software every day. We know the ins and outs and all the hidden features in the software. Workflows within the software come to us without even having to think about which button to click and which option to select. For this reason, we sometimes get trapped in software development and assume some tasks are incredibly clear and easy when they are in fact not. Let me give you an example.

One of the most common question I am asked about NMR Processor for example, is, “How do I attach a structure?”

My first thought is that this is dead easy. But is it? Or am I a victim of the curse of knowledge? I think it’s the former. Let’s start from the beginning. Let’s say I have a processed spectrum in the processor window and I am ready to add a structure. The screenshot below is an example of what I see (click to enlarge):


So if I am looking at this screen from my own perspective, it’s pretty obvious what I do next. But if I try and look at this from a first-time user’s perspective, well, it’s pretty hard to figure out what to do next.

Unfortunately,the word “structure” is nowhere to be found on the screen. For those of you who know how to do this, you can stop reading now, I hope that I have emphasized one of the biggest challenges we face in software development. For those of you who don’t know how to add a structure, I will take the time to explain it in the remainder of this entry.

1) From the Processor window, switch to ChemSketch by clicking on the “ChemSketch” button on the bottom left-hand corner of the screen.


2) Once in ChemSketch, open a file by selecting the “File” menu and clicking on “Open” (Ensure you identify your Files of type using the drop down menu). Alternatively, you can copy and paste a chemical structure from a different drawing program into ACD/ChemSketch.

3) Once the structure is added, simply click on the “Processor” button on the bottom of the screen. The “Select Action” box will appear and you will need to choose the “Attach structure to the current spectrum” option and click OK. You’re done.

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Of course it isn’t just software managers and developers that are victims of the Curse of Knowledge, it’s anyone who has expertise in a particular area, who then tries to teach or communicate that knowledge to someone else. So if you are an NMR spectroscopist who is responsible for training chemists how to use the instrument, or if you are a professor at a university trying to teach NMR to undergrads, or if you are a researcher preparing to present your research at a conference…beware the Curse of Knowledge.

To learn more about the Curse of Knowledge and how to make ideas stick, visit Chip and Dan’s blog at:


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