The one-star review

Deej Johnson, Creative Consultant
Winston Churchill. Barack Obama. Bill Gates. Three instantly recognisable names that have all spoken to the tremendous value of critical thinking. The word critical, of course, has two significant definitions: first, obviously, is offering criticism. The second? Well, being in a critical condition doesn’t mean lying in hospital complaining about the ceiling tiles… Critical means vitally important.

As Churchill put it: “Criticism may not be agreeable but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” I couldn’t agree more.

Yet for reasons that only seem foolish to me, a great number of people – professionals and amateurs alike – never invite that attention. Instead, they often rush to get a product on sale and then seem completely stunned by any negative feedback.

In fact, many remain so keen to duck criticism that they dismiss reviewers as crackpots sooner than ask if the point is valid. This is how we end up with impenetrable instructions, gameplay that makes no sense, and careless mistakes in execution.

It’s a crying shame: ego, enthusiasm and naivety should never stop us hearing ugly truths that make ideas more beautiful.

For these reasons, I often advise clients to make sure that their creative process includes a stark and purposeful look at their idea. And not, to be clear, in the half-assed way that some bosses ask employees for feedback. Rather, I suggest you happily invite people to rip your ideas to shreds. Not friends… Not family members… Not people to whom you’re treating a curry! People that are ready, willing and able to be brutal – just as an unhappy customer might be.

This process bears a close resemblance to the approach of using Amazon’s one-star product reviews as market research. The big difference is, of course, that you here ask for the most severe one-star review of your toy, game, book –
whatever – long before you actually try to sell it.

So how do you request this brutal feedback? It needs to be done in a way that doesn’t cripple your confidence. Or, for that matter, breed contempt for the poor sods that are helping you! Actually, it’s pretty straightforward…

Whenever I ask for feedback, I first explain roughly what the project is. For the sake of illustration, let’s imagine it’s a game. I then say something along these lines:

“I’d like you to do me a favour… It won’t SOUND like a favour, but it is. I’d like you to play this game with some people you know… And let me know about anything you’re not sure of! If you think the gameplay’s too slow, for example, I want you to tell me. If I’ve not made things clear in the instructions, I want you to tell me… If you have any criticism at all, no matter how small or how brutal, I want you to tell me! I want you to rip it apart; I want you to give me every-possible one-star review before I hear it from anybody else…”

Why does phrasing it this way work? It works because it makes the person you’re asking feel that it’s completely safe to give harsh feedback. Just as importantly, it means that the information you get back is less likely to hurt your ego when the hard part happens…

The hard part: that, if you haven’t guessed, is when the feedback actually comes. You must shut your mouth and open your mind. You must listen. Too many people are so clearly rushing to have something ready for Toy Fair, or so desperate to see their name on a game, that they deny and dismiss any negative feedback. It’s painful to watch.

That’s not to say that you have to make changes to your idea, of course! It means that you have to listen to, understand and consider what you’re hearing. But don’t argue. Don’t defend. Don’t start wriggling and writhing and ducking and diving to justify your choices. Simply keep in mind that a theoretical one-star review might be the only thing that prevents actual one-star reviews.

Deej Johnson is a writer and creative consultant, and can be contacted at deejwordwhizz@gmail.com

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