Unknown Unknowns

October 4, 2016

Donald Rumsfeld famously received a lot of stick for his “Unknown Unknowns” speech about the lack of evidence linking the government of Iraq with the supply of WMD. However, the Intelligence services have long used the Johari Window approach, an idea created in 1955 by two American psychologists, Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham: ‘unknown unknowns’ is one of the quadrants.

I was reminded of this recently when we were working with a client on a site that required lots of form filling. It was a clean and simple design that it was thought would test well. Relevant help information was displayed on the right of the page (at desktop resolution). However, even though there was very little clutter on the page testers did not ‘see’ the help content which was confirmed by the eye tracking – they focused on the fields on the form in front of them. As a result testers were unable to easily complete some fields.

This research reminded me that ‘help’ content comes in three flavours and each type need to be presented in different ways on forms. There is:

  • Contextual information – things users need to know so they are happy to start the form filling. This might be details about why the information is required or what information the user needs to have to hand to complete the form.
  • Known Unknowns – are queries users know they have as they are completing the form. They know they don’t know something and they are aware of this e.g. they need an explanation of a technical term because they know they don’t know what it means.
  • Unknown Unknowns – are things that users need to know but they don’t know they need to know them. They have neither the knowledge or an awareness of their lack of knowledge. e.g. password requirements

Contextual information needs to be presented on the page at the start of the form, or each section. It may need to be spelt out in full or as a headline with a link to more information (“You need to provide this information so we can consider your application – more about how applications are considered”)

Known Unknowns is information users will actively look for so an “i” symbol or similar will work for this type of help information.

An Unknown Unknown is information that needs to be put directly in front of users so they ‘trip over it’ as they view the field they are completing – typically after the question but before the field. Similarly to contextual information, this may need to be presented in full or can be a headline and a link to more information if the explanation is, by necessity, extensive.

Being clear about the difference between ‘Known Unknowns’ and ‘Unknown Unknowns’ can make life a lot easier for users!