Knowledge comes in different types. When conducting UX research, the type of knowledge you are trying to tap into is important as it will determine:
- The right methodology to use
- How and when to involve key internal stakeholders in the researchprocess
The difference between explicit and tacit knowledge
Knowledge exists on a spectrum from explicit to tacit:
- Explicit knowledge can be easily articulated and explained– people can tell you what they think
- Tacit knowledge, on the other hand, covers the type of knowledge that isn’t easy to codify or explain, it’s just the way people do things based on their mental model of the world and how it works.
A classic example of tacit knowledge is riding a bike – you know how to do it but try explaining to someone in words what you have to do – it’s difficult!
Tacit knowledge and bread makers
One of the early examples of commercially exploiting tacit knowledge was the development of the first electric bread maker. It was launched in Japan in 1986 by the Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. (now Panasonic).
To really understand the bread making process, lead designers and engineers spent a year training with the head baker at one of Japan’s leading hotels learning how to knead bread. This helped them understand how they needed to design a machine so it would produce an authentic dough.
The head baker could not put into words the actions he took to knead the ingredients – it was his tacit knowledge.
Tacit knowledge and Japanese cars
Back in the 70s Japanese cars were a bit of a joke – you might say they were unreliable rust buckets!
Toyota wanted to break into the European and North American markets but were unfamiliar with what it felt like to drive in these markets.
So, like with the bread makers, they sent teams of designers and engineers into these countries to drive around on all sorts of roads and see how other road users behaved. They took that tacit knowledge of what cars needed to feel like and combined it with their rapidly advancing skills in quality engineering to design a premium vehicle which tested well.
That was, until those early testers realised it was Japanese.
Unfortunately, their reputation of poor-quality vehicles was still alive and well so they had to do a bit of perceptions changing.
To start with, Toyota did a lot of market research in their target markets around names. ‘Alexis’ quickly became a front runner as research proved it conjured up images of class and quality. However, there were concerns at the time that it would become mixed up with a character called Alexis Carrington (played by Joan Collins in her prime) in a very popular TV series called Dynasty. To avoid this, some clever work by their branding people transformed the name and a premium, quality car was launched in the US and Europe to great reviews. It was called a Lexus.
Initially it was assumed it was German, it took a while for people to realise it was in fact a Toyota. By that stage consumers had tried and tested the car and grown to love it. And so began the change in perception of Japanese cars.
Now they are so ubiquitous it’s difficult to believe that people just did not want to buy Japanese cars (I’m old enough to remember this - it is true!).
What has this got to do with UX, you may be asking? Quite simply everything. Realising what type of knowledge you wish to understand, drives the choice of research approaches.
If it is explicit knowledge you are after, you can simply ask your users to tell you what they think.
If it is tacit knowledge you need, observing behaviours is a more effective way to gain insight.