Stages of Learning

Sun 05 June 2011 | -- (permalink)

Awesome quote from Derek Sivers:

They say there are a few stages of learning:

  1. unconscious incompetence
  2. conscious incompetence (\< -- me)
  3. conscious competence
  4. unconscious competence

I'm not sure which "they" he's referring to since I've never heard that before, but I think it's profound.

It strikes me that the quality of communication between people in those stages will vary greatly. Someone who is in stage 3 will be an excellent teacher of someone who's in stage 2. Someone who's in stage 1 is hard to teach, because the move from blissful ignorance to conscious incompetence is humbling and painful. A lot of people give up and tune out rather than enter that world. (Think of every person you know who thinks "I'm not really good with computers.")

Fish in Water

The most difficult communication is between stage 4 people and stage 1 people. A fish swimming through water does not have to think to itself "swish tail right, swish tail left, swish tail right..." as it swims. It just does it, and isn't even conscious that there is such a thing as "water." Likewise a fluent computer programmer spends almost no time thinking about syntax. Instead time is spent thinking about higher level abstractions that are not even visible to the novice who is still coming to grips with all the parentheses and curly braces. Stage 4s have so completely immersed themselves in the topic that its basics now require no thought. They will take for granted and skip over the hundreds of little details that are now second nature, and will sound to stage 1s like they are spewing irrelevant jargon.

In most parts of life that's fine. Stage 4 computer people can call themselves "geeks" and go to conferences together. Stage 4 musicians can form bands or orchestras and create art that most of us can't fully appreciate. The obvious problem that arises is when stage 4s are asked to work on a project with stage 1s, or even worse, when the person in charge of a project is at stage 1 on its key areas of expertise and asked to supervise workers at stage 4. This boss will make decisions that are incomprehensible to the rest of the team, ignoring their advice because he (or she) has no context by which to judge the input's relevance or worth.

Stage 1/Stage 4 Conflicts in Web Design

The frustrations of stage 1/stage 4 mismatches are keenly felt within the web design world. Most web design work is done on a project basis. So while a web designer is working on his or her 50th site, the client is probably doing its first or maybe second. And it gets worse. Just like everyone thinks they have a good sense of humor and are above average drivers, the typical web design client falls into these traps:

  1. Having strong opinions on a website's appearance, and substituting these opinions for reasoned consideration of design.
  2. Giving short shrift to "usability", either thinking that it's obvious or that it means "whatever I already thought about how the website should work."
  3. Believing that they're a naturally above-average manager, and don't need to worry about management pitfalls like designing by committee or making end-runs around the project leader.

Huge mismatches of competence are so common in the web design world that dealing with them is a common topic of blog posts, client education materials, and even web comics.