6 seemingly innocent questions guaranteed to kill creativity

Jason Cranford Teague translates some of those client queries.

I've been in a lot of design critiques, stand-up sessions, and reviews over the years, and began to notice something: there are some questions that get asked over and over again that are time-bombs ready to explode and kill creativity in the project. They are not always asked using the exact same words, but the meaning and results are the same.

The problem is that most of theses questions put the person they addressed to in an immediately defensive position on something that is usually a judgment call. This can be hard to deal with because questions like these almost immediately feel personal.

To help you out, I'm translating the questions into how they make you feel, identifying the problem with them, and then helping you construct a good answer.

01. Why didn't you do it this way?

What it feels like they are asking: Why didn't you do it this way, you idiot?

Image credit: Howard Ignatius

The Problem: Maybe you thought about the solution they are proposing, maybe you didn't, but unless they know that you did from previous discussions, this is a kind of "Do you still beat your wife?" question, where any answer indicts you. It assumes you considered their great idea and discarded it like trash.

The Answer: Recast the question as a more friendly-feeling, "Did you consider doing it this way?" If you did, explain why that solution didn't work. If you didn't then the answer is, "I didn't consider that idea. Why do you think that would work better?" and the conversation can continue around that as a proposed idea rather than why you did or did not think about it.

02. Do you have any research or data to back that idea up?

What it feels like they are asking: Do you have anything to validate your ideas, or did you just pull them out of your ass?

Image credit: janneke staaks

The Problem: When you're ideating (a fancy term for quickly coming up with ideas), there's not time to stop and think "is this a good idea or a bad idea" – the point is to just come up with ideas and then do the research later.

The Answer: Depending on where you are in the the process of developing your ideas, you will need different amounts of research to back you up. So, if you are just throwing ideas around, or in the early stages of development, answer with "no, not right now, but let's see where this leads before we bury our heads in data and research."

03. Why don't our competitors do it that way?

What it feels like they are asking: Why do you think you are any smarter than our competitors?

Image credit: Jessica Cross

The Problem: Innovation does not happen by playing 'me too' with your competitors. I once spent months arguing with a product manager over the placement of a travel booking module on a page. The most popular sites put it on the left, but, since the main value of our site to the audience was travel stories for inspiration, I wanted to put it on the right and use the more immediately viewed left side for content.

After extensive testing I showed that the change I wanted to make had no effect on customer conversion, but did increase audience engagement with content. The product manger held to his guns, arguing that our competitors were larger and therefore had more experience at this than we did. The module stayed on the left. A year later, our competitors moved their booking modules to the right side of their interface to increase engagement with content. Sigh.

The Answer: Your best bet is to come back with research and data to support your cause, but, as I explained, that will not always do the trick. Be prepared to wait for more evidence or even try to talk to your competitors if you can to see why they did what they did. You may be surprised to find out that the reason they are not doing something a particular way is because you are not doing it that way.

04. Did you know that [information tertiary to the point you are making]?

What it feels like they are asking: Did you know that I know more than you do?

Image credit: Al King

The Problem: If someone isn't interested in what you have to say, then they will do anything to change the subject, which immediately derails your creative train of thought.

The Answer: Ask yourself: is it you or is it them? Life is too short to talk to people who are not interested in your ideas. This is problematic on a project team where you may not have a choice, but don't beat your head against a wall. Try to figure out ways to make your ides more interesting or to explain them in more concrete terms the person you are trying to communicate with can understand.

05. When do we get to the critique?

What it feels like they are asking: When do we get to tear apart this self evidently awful idea?

Image credit: Ani-Bee

The Problem: This one comes in a wide variety of more subtle versions, and the 'critique' can also be cumulative, like pin-pricks, each drawing a little blood until you look down and realize you are bleeding to death.

My agency was working on a web site for a scientific research company, and I was the UX lead. They also hired a third party consultant – basically to keep an eye on us – but she had to continually prove her value to the project. We were already weeks into the architecture for the site when she comes to her first meeting to review a second round of wireframes with us. Before we can open our mouths to even present our work she opens with, "When do I get to criticize?" This chilled the project team, and set a contentious atmosphere for all future meetings.

The Answer: Generally people who ask questions like this are bullies. The good news is that bullies can be the easiest to manipulate. They want the first word and they want the last word. So, let them. Let them talk themselves silly. If they ask questions, tell them you are writing this down and will answer once they are done with their entire critique.

When they are finally done, get on with your explanations as planned, addressing their questions as possible, but don't let them suck you into an open debate. Instead, when they ask something, tell them you are getting to that explanation. Guide their rebuttal to the points important to you.

06. Can we try that in the next version?

What it feels like they are asking: Why would we waste our time on this?

Image credit: McKay Savage

The Problem: You probably will not get this into the next version, or even the one after that. This is generally asked as a stalling tactic, basically getting you to agree to assign your idea to the scrap heap. Again, this is often a symptom of the Agile/MVP environment that many development teams are working within these days.

The Answer: Pick your battles wisely. Is this one worth it? If so, then your answer should be "no, it needs to go into this version." But be prepared to back that argument up and probably give up something else up in its place.

Statements or questions, it's all the same

Most of these questions also have their statement counterparts (e.g. "We'll do that in the next version"), but how it makes you feel and how to respond stay pretty much the same. Keep in mind that when dealing with someone else making a firm statement, though, you need to be prepared to be more firm in your own response.

What are some of the questions you have had to deal with while working as a designer and how have you coped with them? Let me know below in the comments.

Words: Jason Cranford Teague

Jason Cranford Teague is a Senior Creative Director at Capital One and teaches workshops on experience design for developers, development for designs, and temporal design thinking.

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