What to do when you know everything

Or: a reminder that what we know is always changing

There’s something compelling about a question with no immediate answer.

It’s like a block of marble. You know there’s something inside, yearning to make itself known. You chip away at it through conversations, field visits, surveys, and all the other tools we carry in our work.

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Then, when you’ve chipped away at the block of marble just so, you reveal new knowledge and insights. You couldn’t see it before you started, but now it’s there, clear for all to view. This new creation of yours, understanding, gives you confidence to move forward. Proudly, you say,

“I know X well enough to make the decision.”

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It’s a thing of beauty, this understanding that you’ve created. You carry it around and show it off with pride. Charge into stand-ups and design critiques wielding your newly formed expertise on what is going down. Stand confidently in front of whiteboards, surrounded by your team, you brandish a marker, “I speak for the users. Their voices will be heard, their wants and needs known, their pains, their wins and losses told to all.” Proudly, you say,

“I know X.”

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Until you don’t, that is. Until you come face to face with new information. When someone holds up their hand and mentions something that doesn’t match your creation. Smugly, you say,

“Yes, but…”

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“Yes, but” hardly attempts to acknowledge another point of view. There is a tiny pause, half a breath at most, before you barrel into your obviously more correct statement of absolute fact. In that moment, you’ve put up a wall. It becomes clear that you’re not there to listen, but to tell.

What happened?

Somewhere between curiosity and creation, your understanding of X became X.

Your understanding of how people choose a bank / playlist / couch became the definitive “this is how people choose a bank / playlist / couch.”

Your understanding of X, and X, are two different things.

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X is real and it’s outside of your control. It will change. You may not have had a complete understanding the first time. You may have explored it from the wrong perspective.

What you created, what you carry to and from meetings, is your understanding of X. It’s your understanding of how people choose banks / playlists / couches. This understanding gave you what you needed at that time. It gave you confidence to move forward. It gave you perspective to choose this instead of that. But what represented X then, may not represent it now.

People change, as do their preferences, and their behaviours. Environments change, as do how people work, live, and interact within these environments.

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You may have done user testing every day for a month, but that was six months ago. You may have interviewed 100 people in North America last year, but now you’re going into Australia. You may have done quick testing internally to get an MVP out the door, but now you’re facing new stress cases that you didn’t think to think of before. Too often, we treat our understanding like a block of carved marble. But we should always be free to iterate, adapt, and refine our understanding. Understanding, then, should be treated as a work in progress, made of flexible mediums always ready to be shaped anew.

Create a culture open to new perspectives, open to change, and open to new information. It starts with you.

“I know X, and I know there’s more to learn.”

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