Leaving The Bliss of Unconscious Incompetence

Jared Spool

December 6th, 2011

How did all those horrific designs in Myspace come about? Two words: Unconscious Incompetence.

Unconscious incompetence is the first of the Four Stages of Competence. In this stage, someone doesn’t realize just how much they don’t know. It’s a blissful state and, frankly a place that is wonderful.

Imagine not knowing what you don’t know. You can do practically anything you want and never run into the boundaries of quality. (As my former work colleague, Will Schroeder, used to say: “Once you remove quality from the requirements, everything becomes a whole lot easier.”)

Lots of what we call “unintended design” — design that’s the result of people focusing on the internal architecture or outside requirements instead of on the users’ experience — is the result of unconscious incompetence. When a team produces a horrific design, they don’t realize there’s a better way.

When I started in the computer field, almost all design was this way. Whatever way the code fell was how the design ended up. If the user had to jump through hoops to do simple things, well, too bad. They’ll learn how to use it in the training or read the manual or something. Or they’ll write up a software bug report and we’ll do something to fix it. (Or dismiss it as a PEBCAK error.)

An organization can get away with unconscious incompetence as long as all of its competitors are the same way. However, once a competitor becomes competent, the ballgame changes. Suddenly, there’s a pressure to learn what it takes — to become competent at the design process themselves.

It’s this transition that we see lots of organizations today. They are moving away from the bliss of not knowing to the stress and frustration of suddenly realizing there’s a ton they don’t know. It’s a painful transition, but one that is the start of an often fruitful journey.

One Response to “Leaving The Bliss of Unconscious Incompetence”

  1. Lu chez Zengo : semaine du 5 décembre — Les Bonnes Fréquentations Says:

    […] Leaving The Bliss of Unconscious Incompetence / User Interface Engineering Jared Spool lie l’incompétence inconsciente au « design non-intentionnel » qui tient compte de tout sauf de l’utilisateur. Pertinent! […]

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