Putting the 'spotlight' on ethnography

April 03, 2014

The experimental psychologist Nicholas Epley was interviewed on a recent Freakonomics podcast titled, “It’s Fun to Smoke Marijuana” describing what is termed the Spotlight Effect. In a nutshell, the spotlight effect describes how we distort the way people view us due to our ego-centrism. Because we are always thinking about ourselves, we are the world leading experts on our attractiveness, abilities, and intelligence. This expertise makes it hard for us to understand how a novice (basically everyone else in the world) will view us.

Epley takes this phenomena one step further to describe the gap between experts and novices using a song with a hidden message in it (Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust”). Upon the first time hearing the refrain played backwards, the majority of listeners describe the garbled words as indiscernible. However, if Epley tells the listener the hidden message ahead of time, the phrase is clearly identified in the recording and your perception is that the majority of people should be able to pick it out it upon their first hearing. In short, you become an expert and you expect others to share your viewpoint. Epley explains:

"We know a lot about ourselves, about our appearance, about our abilities. And that makes it hard to recognize how somebody else who doesn’t know as much about us will judge us. And as one example, let me play a song for you here in just a second, and what I’m going to do is I’m going to make you an expert in this. And you will see how becoming an expert, learning some additional information, knowing more about this particular clip, changes your perception of it in a way that makes it very hard for you now to understand how a novice, somebody who wasn’t an expert might evaluate this same stimulus."

How many examples of this phenomenon can you imagine in your own life? I think about seeing animals in clouds, “Come on. Can’t you see the dinosaur??? It’s right there!” or trying to teach my kids how to catch a ball, “Follow it with your eyes and grab it, don’t pull it into your chest.” Once you are an expert, you can’t remember what it’s like to be a novice.

Once you are an expert, you can’t remember what it’s like to be a novice.

In product design, we are constantly interacting with experts and novices, especially during the discovery research phase. We have fancy names for all of the folks we talk to:

  • Key Opinion Leaders
  • Industry Executives
  • Target Consumers
  • Friends and Family
  • Category Experts
  • Naïve Users

But these names really bubble up into two camps: experts and novices. We are often using these two camps for very unique findings:

Novices are great at providing gut reactions. They have “the eyes of a child” and can remind us experts what a true first experience with a product or service might be since the spotlight effect has warped our ability to predict this.

Experts can hone in on the details and help shape the final product in a nuanced way. Without this critical eye we get key features wrong and the experience with that product or service won’t be top-notch.

Thanks for listening. How did I do? I definitely could have done a better job on that second paragraph. Oh, you don’t care?