Why ignorance is the natural state of mind for a UX researcher

And how practicing constructive ignorance makes us better problem solvers

Multiple people raising hands to ask a question
Photo by Artem Maltsev on Unsplash

In his book Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Neil deGrasse Tyson wrote, “ignorance is the natural state of mind for a research scientist.”

This quote instantly resonated when I first read it, and although I’ve butchered the exact wording many times in front of an audience, it’s an idea that resonated during a turning point in my career.

When I was a young designer, I thought I knew everything. Before making the jump to UX research and design, I spent more than 10 years working for creative agencies; a community that often relies on knowing — or claiming to know — what an audience wants. But the older I got, and the more experience points I collected, I found discomfort in the confidence of knowing.

Placing too much faith in what I knew only led to inflexibility. Too many failed experiments taught me that assumptions are nothing more than faulty knowledge, but being self-aware of the knowledge I lacked allowed me to make better, informed decisions. How? By ignoring my pride and not being afraid to ask any question, no matter how obvious it seemed.

If you want to be a better problem solver, then you need to be more focused on learning than on demonstrating the knowledge you already possess. You can’t be afraid to ask stupid questions and challenge what others “know.” When you hide behind your ignorance — pretending to know rather than challenging ideas — you fail to contribute and uncover real problems. Rather, embracing a curious, question-based approach never fails to support informed decisions, while also putting others in a position to more effectively contribute their own expertise.

UX research is a science, and science begins by recognizing that we don’t know something. What device do our users prefer? How do they feel when using our product? These aren’t questions to be debated. They require us to practice constructive ignorance; to focus on expanding our understanding by embracing a learner mindset, rolling up our sleeves (or throwing on our lab coats), and setting out to uncover new knowledge.

Today, I find courage in the things I don’t know. I understand that the goal of an experiment isn’t to predict the outcome, but to answer that which I simply can’t predict. Instead of validating assumptions, I challenge them by embracing my own ignorance.

I’m sure you’ve been in a situation where you were afraid — or discouraged — to ask questions. Next time, don’t leave those questions at the door. Embrace the desire to know what you don’t know and ask those questions. All of them. That’s how we really learn to empathize; to understand how people think and act; what they need.

You see, the knowledge we often need to solve problems can’t be found in books, or Google search results, because it exists in people’s heads. Whether the person sitting next to you is your client, a teammate, or a user, it’s very likely that they have the information you need. So don’t be afraid of your ignorance, or of others noticing it. By doing so, the process of learning can truly begin.

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