Putting An End To An Opinion War

Jared Spool

January 11th, 2012

Opinion wars kill design projects. An opinion war happens when two or more people hold strongly held opinions that are in opposition of each other.

Opinion wars can get messy. They can stop a team in its tracks. And the worst thing about them is they can’t be won. There is never a winner in an opinion war.

The problem with opinion wars is their foundation. Let’s say you and I are in an opinion war. You strongly think that we should do some thing and I strongly think that thing absolutely the wrong thing to do.

For you to swing me over to agreeing with you that we should do that thing, you’d need to sway my opinion. And, if I’m going to convince you it’s wrong, I’ll need to sway yours.

However, swaying opinions is practically impossible. I’d like to think I’m a smart dude and my opinion is not just some random, unconsidered thought. Instead, I’ve based my opinion on my life’s experiences, which you haven’t had. Similarly, you’re a smart dude or dudette and your opinion is based on your life’s experiences, which I haven’t had.

To sway my opinion, you’d have to convince me to put aside everything my life’s experiences are telling me about this situation and take, completely on faith, your opinions. These are based on your life’s experiences, which I didn’t have. That’s really, really hard for me to do. It’s hard for anyone to do.

Opinion wars can’t be won. The only way to move past them is to subvert them.

Using Data to Subvert Opinion Wars

One way to subvert an opinion war is with data. In a design process, the data usually comes from user research.

If I believe there a right way to design something and your experience tells you that would be a sucky design, we have an opinion war. However, if we can get a prototype of that design in front of users, we’ll get real data to make the decision. We’ll no longer be working off our own opinions and experiences.

In almost every case where I’ve seen an opinion war, data about the users has completely dissipated it. Quite frequently, the data proves that neither side was completely right and that there was a completely different way to think about the problem.

All Hail The Arbitrator

Another approach to solving opinion wars is to appoint an final arbitrator. This person is chartered by the team to make decisions and every decision they make is final, no matter what others think about it.

We use this at UIE a lot. Each project has an owner. The owner makes all the final decisions for their project.

Often the project owner isn’t senior in the organization. In fact, they can be the person with the least seniority. They are not expected to ask permission. However, when they aren’t sure, they should ask advice.

Often the advice is conflicting and, occasionally, it’s strongly held. It’s this arbitrator’s responsibility to listen to all the advice and give it serious consideration. More importantly, it’s their responsibility to make the decision.

We’ve established a culture that says it’s the right thing to do make a decision, even if that decision turns out not to go the way people wanted. Even if that decision turns out, in the long run, to have not been the best approach. This is because a decision that moves us forward is better than getting stalled.

Opinion wars can kill a great project. Care needs to be taken to ensure they don’t get in the way.

4 Responses to “Putting An End To An Opinion War”

  1. Marketing Day: January 12, 2012 Says:

    [...] Putting An End To An Opinion War, http://www.uie.com [...]

  2. Planning design projects to avoid "opinion wars" | Spark Says:

    [...] Spool shares good advice for design teams in his recent post “Putting An End To An Opinion War”. He observes that “Opinion wars kill design projects.” He shares two key ways to end an [...]

  3. Jessica McMillen Says:

    These are two good points. In fact, I like the take on using a non-senior person to be the arbitrator. I also use A/B testing as a way to end the opinion war, particularly in the situation where a “win” for one opinion or another can easily be measured. Thanks for the insight!

  4. Melanie Brockert Says:

    I run into this a lot at work, and do find that going to the users is an easy way to make a decisioni. Occasionally though, the battle is between a business goal and a usability one. For instance – a business goal is to “not advertise” something that a large number of users may need to access. If we make it harder to find, doesn’t that go against good usability/design?

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