The Flexibility of the Four Stages of Competence

by Jared M. Spool

Lost for decades, an old model has re-emerged to help how we look at today’s design challenges. In the 70s, psychologist Noel Burch suggested a model for how we master skills and relationships, calling it the “conscious competence learning model.” It fell into obscurity for decades, only to resurface as a powerful perspective for experience designers.

The four-stage model is intriguingly simple, describing a person’s path from ignorance to mastery:

Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence

This is where our person starts. They are pretty bad at what they are trying to do, however, they are completely unaware of how bad they are. In fact, in many cases, the unconsciously incompetent person actually thinks they are pretty good at it, which gets in the way of them improving.

Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence

Our person has now realized there is much more to what they are trying to do than they realized, and they don’t really know what they thought they knew. In this stage, the consciously incompetent individual may become overwhelmed by what seems to be a vast knowledge area they can’t quite grasp.

Stage 3: Conscious Competence

Here our person has overcome what they didn’t know and started the path of learning. The consciously competent person executes their tasks much more successfully, but the focus and attention it requires has the price of being slow.

Stage 4: Unconscious Competence

In this final stage, our person has now internalized all the knowledge and can utilize their understanding without active thought or concentration. The unconsciously competent person completes the tasks with grace and speed.

This concrete description of skill and knowledge mastery has many applications in the world of experience design. In fact, we’ve recently seen it mentioned so often, we’ve been tempted to create a drinking game around it.

This model is a fabulous lens delivering insights into several different dimensions of the design work we do. It helps us understand our own knowledge of our users, how our users relate to their objectives, how we become better designers, and how intelligent interfaces work. Few other models give us this kind of flexibility.

Applying the Model to Our Knowledge of Our Users

An obvious application for the conscious incompetence model is to explain how well we know our users. The four stages map nicely into how we understand the people we’re designing for.

Many design teams start off unconsciously incompetent, not knowing much about their users, yet believing they do. They make design decisions, often not realizing the lack of their knowledge, that inevitably work against them. The lack of feedback that keeps them ignorant about their users also keeps them ignorant about the poor fit of their designs.

At some point, feedback comes into the organization and they realize they don’t know much about who their users are and what they are trying to do. They are hit with a wave of reality about how bad their designs are, but they aren’t sure what needs to be done to make it better. They’ve reached conscious incompetence.

As the design team dissects what’s happening, they start to form strategies and understanding around their options. After a while, their design practice becomes consciously competent. Solving every new design problem is an adventure and learning experience (and often energizing and fun).

With experience, they learn to handle the more common and simple cases with ease. Design patterns and rich understanding of their users give the unconsciously competent team a fluency in their design process that produces solutions quickly.

Applying the Model to Our Users’ Objectives

Turning the model’s lens in a different direction, we see how our users approach their own objectives and the designs we present to them. For example, let’s look at a small business owner, say a small lawyer’s practice, trying to handle their own bookkeeping and client invoicing.

These lawyers, thoroughly trained in the law, start their business with little-to-no business knowledge. When it comes to keeping track of receipts, expenses, and client income, they make many mistakes without realizing it, thus being unconsciously incompetent about what they need to do.

As they learn about their mistakes (probably from angry clients and a frustrated accountant), they realize they have to change, but don’t quite know exactly what to do about it. Now they are consciously incompetent with their bookkeeping.

With some online research and help from their accountants and other colleagues, they learn basic procedures, making them consciously competent. They only know how to handle the basic, most common tasks. They still struggle with anything out of the ordinary.

Finally, after years of experience running their business, they handle the invoicing and bookkeeping easily, even when unusual edge cases come up. They don’t think about it much, making them unconsciously competent. They’ve traveled the full cycle.

Applying the Model to Becoming Better Designers

When we’re working with our clients to help improve their design practice, we use the four stages model to help explain where their team members are at.

The team members who haven’t thought about the process of design before are unconsciously incompetent.

Those new-to-design folks who understand design is important, but don’t know what the right ways to create great designs are consciously incompetent.

Then there are the designers who are literate in the basics of good design practice, but have to think about each design step. They are consciously competent.

Finally, the most advanced designers who are fluent in design techniques and skills, consistently demonstrating at how easy it is for them to produce great work, are unconsciously competent.

Applying the Model To Intelligent Interfaces

We’ve even used the four stages to explain what happens in the designs we’re creating. Imagine that we’re working on a form field that takes in a phone number.

An unconsciously incompetent way to design the field would be to accept any characters without any validation. The user could type in ABCDE and the application would accept it without saying a word, even though it’ll cause problems down the road.

A consciously incompetent implementation would present an unintelligible error message, such as “DATA ERROR” that doesn’t help the user know what’s wrong or what to do differently.

Contrast that with a consciously competent design that could tell the user that phone numbers can only be numbers or a plus sign and they have to remove any spaces or dashes.

The ideal implementation would demonstrate unconsciously competence, by accepting all different formats for phone numbers, intelligently interpreting whether it’s international or US format, and displaying it accordingly. The user wouldn’t have to think at all about what they are typing in, as long as they enter something that feels right to them.

Reaping the Benefits of the Four Stages of Competence

A great model gives us a way to talk with our teammates about the designs we’re creating. It helps us see where we’re currently at and where we want to go.

For example, if we can implement different design strategies to help our users with their own stages of competence. For users who are currently unconsciously incompetent, we can help them see the downstream effects of their actions. We can give our consciously incompetent users strategies for becoming better at attaining their objectives. We can design tools that help our users become fluent, thereby attaining unconscious competence.

We can do the same with our own teams, looking at where they might need improvement. The model helps us see what the next level of achievement is and gives us insight into how to attain it.

Noel Burch was on to something. If he only knew how valuable his theory truly was.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.