Opinions are great, but don’t confuse them with facts.

I love working with people who can express their opinion but when a person presents their opinion as fact they’ve taken a turn down a frustrating path. If someone does this, call them on it. Ask if that's an opinion or fact. Opinions need to be flagged as such or they're a distraction for your team. They make people with opposing opinions dig in their heels for a war that can't be won without someone losing face.

Early in my career someone with more experience than myself called bullshit when I presented a ‘fact’ in a large meeting. We were working on a story-based game and I was telling the team how they had it all wrong when the savvy manager asked me how they could do it better. I knew a good story when I saw one but I had never written one. I knew nothing of the craft. Probably 30 people saw me learn a painful lesson.

Share your opinions and be prepared to acknowledge them as such or back them up quantitatively.

Tell people what they’re doing well

It’s no surprise that crit sessions, or critiques, are stressful. Everything about them, from the name on down, is designed to expose all of the things the artist/designer is doing wrong or what could be done better. An artist spends a day, a week, a month or longer developing an idea and it culminates in a session devoted to exposing their weaknesses. That sucks. Here are a couple things that will mitigate the stress.

As the artist, collect feedback consistently while you’re working so you aren’t thrown any curveballs on the day of the critique. Do self-critique, use your friends and colleagues for gut-checks while you're working and strive to anticipate feedback.

As a critic, tell the artist what could be made better but also tell them everything they did well. Be very clear about this. The best outcome of a critique is an artist who can identify weaknesses but can also replicate success.

Buy yourself some time

Feedback doesn’t always come at a convenient time. You might be deep in thought, in the middle of a conversation or actively trying to solve some other problem when an unexpected distraction drops in your lap. Shifting gears isn’t easy and very often a jarring shift means we don’t receive the distraction as gracefully as we would if we were prepared. Buy yourself time to react. Try one of these...

1. Take a deep breath and give yourself time to collect your thoughts.

2. Make a 'thinking' gesture. Example: lean back, touch your chin, nod, say 'Hmmmm....". Create a pause in conversation.

3. Be direct and tell the distracting person to give you a minute.

Over the years I've used all of these, professionally and personally, and I’m sure you can come up with your own scripted actions for buying yourself time. Try it and let me know what works for you!

Dial back the heat

Sometimes creative conversations get heated. People get attached to their ideas, they dig in their heels and friction develops. What are you supposed to do? Dial back the heat by acknowledging the tension. It seems obvious but sometimes the obvious needs to be stated. Example, "It feels like things are getting tense. Let's take a breath, step back and refresh ourselves on the goals." 

Once the tension is abated ask whether your partner is willing to entertain other ideas. Most people will acknowledge that there might be other solutions. Then invite them to help you explore them.

Another strategy for reducing the stress of competing ideas: consider listing the project goals and invite other people to help prioritize them. Often this will expose emotional attachments and focus the conversation on what is needed, as opposed to what is desired, and lead to alternate solutions.

Keep yourself engaged

I have an issue with boredom. I hear people say, “I’m bored” and it drives me a little crazy. Boredom is a symptom of a lifestyle choice. The choice to be disengaged. I know we can’t all choose moment-to-moment happiness but we can choose engagement. For most of us, if we are unsatisfied with the task at hand or just plain bored it's our own damn fault.

Don't wait for your life to excite you. You'll be waiting a long, long time. The world couldn't care less if you're bored or unhappy. It will continue spinning long after you're gone.

If you look for dissatisfaction or boredom it will always be there but your energy is better spent looking for opportunities to do the things you love. If you don't see the opportunities, make them for yourself. You don't need to wait for anyone. Breathe life into your own ideas. Create the moments that bring you joy. 

When visions collide

Before he passed away I had the opportunity to attend a talk with one of my design idols, Tibor Calman. Something he said still resonates with me, "If you're not fired from a third of your design projects you're not doing your job." While I don't agree 100% with his statement I love that it acknowledges the power of conflicting visions. At some point we will all work on projects that we don't find interesting or we disagree with the vision. For some people that's their daily routine.

The question that interests me is this - what do you do when you disagree with a vision? You have a few options if your amazing ideas have been rejected: 1) Walk away. 2) Accept the conditions and do your best because you have bills to pay. 3) Learn from the experience and find work that better aligns with your vision in the future and finally 4) Be such a pain in the ass that you're fired. While I prefer 2 and 3 as a strategy sometimes its best just to walk away. And sometimes we aren't given the option.

Beware the vocal minority

People are eager to offer what they think you should have done. They will describe in broad strokes how your product would be better if only you had done "X". They won't ask about your goal but they will project where your concepts are leading and how you should move forward. When pressed they will be shy for details but they will sow enough doubt that you'll question your path and it'll slow you down. We wrestle with enough doubts on our own. Beware the vocal minority. Don't give them too much power over your vision.

It's easier to identify what doesn't work than to articulate what is perfectly okay so most people's default mode is critical. Some people are just invested in being the one who can spot faults. They feel like they're accomplishing something by pointing out faults - they feel smart and sometimes they feel like they're helping. 

If someone expresses doubt don't take it as the gospel. Be critical of feedback, ask for details and test your ideas against multiple people.

An introduction to Scripts

I'll broadly define Scripts as recurring conversations in everyday life. They are situational and range from the banality of "How about the weather?" to something more loaded like "Tell me why I should hire you." Almost every conversation has an associated script and expectations on both sides of the conversation. If you know the function of a script you can better anticipate the needs of the person(s) you're speaking with.

As an example, The 5 Whys, are an effective script for helping a client articulate their goals.

Personally, I love conversations that veer from known scripts into unexpected territory because participants need to switch off their autopilot and pay attention. Ironically, the people who know me can anticipate that I will go off-script so even my desire to break the script becomes a script!

90% of feedback is worthless

But that last 10% is pure gold so it’s worth plowing through the trash to find the treasure. Okay, maybe that’s harsh, but its also true. Everyone comes to a feedback session with their own ideas and agendas. And you probably do the same thing when you’re giving feedback because, by default, people see the world through their own eyes. Makes sense, right? Empathy takes work. And sometimes empathy needs a little pat on the bottom to get it moving along.

Thankfully there’s something simple you can do to increase the percentage of usable feedback. Before you start collecting feedback make sure people know your goals.

Blam. Easy as that. It’ll save you time, improve the focus of the feedback and, as an extra bonus, you’ll be less defensive because you won’t be getting reactions to things that don’t address your primary concerns.

Start punching holes

Arguing is the new buzz in brainstorming. It’s an unsurprising backlash to the the brainstorm de rigueur of the past few years in which criticism is minimized. But its not an either/or decision. Both approaches are helpful depending on your needs at the moment.

Do you have a shortage of ideas? Use a brainstorm to generate fresh perspectives and potential connections. Have an abundance of ideas and need to filter them down? Invite someone to help you punch holes in the various ideas. It doesn’t need to be an argument. In fact, I suggest taking turns attacking and defending the various ideas on the table so you have to evaluate both the positive and negative qualities of a given idea. Call it an empathy exercise.

This also produces interesting results if you’re at a creative impasse. It takes a strong person to say, “Okay, for the moment let’s switch positions and I’ll argue for your idea and you try to attack it.”

Brainstorming 101

As a creative tool brainstorms have taken a beating the past couple years. The key is setting expectations and organization. Don't throw a bunch of people into a room and expect magic to happen. Some tips...

1. Define the goals. Let the team know what the problem is that they're solving and describe criteria.
2. Appoint a leader. Keeps conversation moving along and polices judgement. Flags tangents.
3. Appoint a scribe. Documents all of the ideas on a flip chart or white board. Ideally in full view of the group.
4. Don't be critical. Nothing kills the desire to get involved like judgement. You can debate and argue later.
5. Embrace the wild ideas. The crazy thoughts can always be scaled back. 
6. Set goals. More ideas are better so go for volume. Set motivating goals like, "Let's come up with 25 new ideas."

Convert negative feedback into something you can use

We can all improve how we give feedback but the biggest leap forward you can make is how you receive feedback. Especially vague, or unhelpful, feedback. It's a portable skill that'll follow you throughout your career and doesn’t rely on others to be great communicators for you to be effective. Do it well and you can convert poor communicators into clear communicators. At least for that one conversation. It's up to you to make sure feedback is usable.

• Don't accept hyperbole (postitive or negative). Ask for details.
• If you think an opinion was expressed ask for details. Find the source of that opinion.
• Dig deep and apply The Five Why's. If a suggestion is made and you don’t understand it, dig for answers. Ex. Why did you suggest that color specifically? Is it the color you want or the association you have with that color? Do I have room to explore beyond just that color as long as the design captures the quality you’re after?

The Negative Impact of the Wrong People

You will be influenced by the people you surround yourself with so choose them carefully. If you want to be upbeat and positive, hang with upbeat people. If you want more creativity in your life, spend time with friend who ooze ideas. Unfortunately the opposite is also true. Negative peers will affect you negatively. 

Last night at dinner the couple next to us complained non stop. I didn’t even know these people and the negativity they projected started to cling to me.

Everyone has their bad days but if the defining characteristic of a relationship is frustration or anger it’s time to move on. If it's a relationship you value try to work it out. The Manager Tools feedback model is fantastic if you’re unsure where to begin. If your feedback is consistent this person won’t be so surprised, and might even agree, when you decide to let them go.

More is not always better

People like the idea of having options but when faced with too many they shut down. It’s almost always better to present people with fewer, higher quality, options than to overload them.

Remember the last time you tried to make a selection from an ten page Chinese restaurant menu? You probably chose something from memory. Back when Blockbuster was in business I had to decide what movie to rent before I arrived because, if I didn't, I'd just wander the aisles in a state of information overload.

Whether you’re sending a client mockups or designing an interface keep the options focused and few. Of course there are exceptions. A power Photoshop user want an array of tools at their fingertips, a pilot wants all their instruments in view. But if you’re designing for the mainstream and want to facilitate decision-making present fewer options that represent your recommendations.