Building trust as a designer

Being a designer is a constant balancing act. Whether it’s finding a balance between users’ needs and an organisation’s needs, or forgoing a better design to deliver something quickly, we’re always making trade offs.

One of the trade offs I’ve been thinking about lately has been the one between building trust with your users and fostering positive relationships with your teammates.

In an ideal world, we’d all be fighting the good fight and prioritising user needs at all costs, regardless of objections from others, or logistical constraints like time and money.

But in reality, it’s very hard to advocate for users if you’ve lost the trust of your team.

To do our work effectively, we need to build trust in both directions.

Being a developer working with designers

I began my career as a frontend developer. Designers would hand me mock-ups and I’d code them up. The designers I worked with were passionate about getting things to look right.

I took pride in making interfaces cross-browser, accessible and ‘pixel perfect’.

But I also learned that websites don’t need to look the same in every browser and that users don’t really care about pixels—not beyond being able to use and trust your product.

I tried to influence my team to consider user needs. But the designers I used to work with wanted absolute adherence to their designs.

They also valued the ability to code past constraints—embracing constraints and pushing back didn’t elicit the best response—and the conversation would quickly break down.

Putting users first

I was left frustrated, and hoped to find work that would let me prioritise user experience and simplicity.

And thankfully I managed to do that when I joined Just Eat. I worked closely with a designer called Mark, who shared my ethos, advocating for simplicity over pixel-perfect design.

It was possible to put users first and I was happy doing that.

Facing constraints

I’ve always faced constraints in some form, both as a designer and a developer.

One story I have involved cutting the scope of our MVP by 50% to launch Kidly, an online store for baby products.

But more recently, working in government, I’ve had to deal with different kinds of constraints that I hadn’t encountered in the private sector.

Budget restrictions are a different ball game when you’re talking about taxpayers’ money, and policy and legislative requirements mean you can’t always take the most user-centred approach.

I met some amazing designers, doing the best work they could within the parameters they faced, and I began to empathise with the need to accept constraints and respect the limitations of those around me.

Designing the impossible

Some years later, I came across Craig Abbott’s article, designing the impossible.

Craig says it’s our job as designers to push for better, a lot better. Not to bow down to pressure when developers push back on our designs because of [insert technical constraint here].

And it’s true. If you embrace every constraint that comes your way, you’ll only ever design a subpar experience.

But, pushing for the impossible isn’t always conducive to building trust with your colleagues. And it got me thinking some more.

Finding a balance

We gain trust with teammates by being valuable and practical. By being a team player. It’s a difficult balancing act when you want to help your colleagues do the basic thing but also push to make things better.

I’ve been to many backlog refinement sessions, where my work has been scaled back to deliver faster.

And I’ve been okay with that. Not just because I want to deliver faster, but I want to build trust by taking my ego out of the equation — something that I learnt from Mark.

But I sometimes wonder if I should have fought harder to make sure our users get a better experience.

Is it my job to be realistic and empathetic to constraints, or to be the persistent voice of the user who makes stuff better at the cost of momentum and team morale?

As with most things, it depends.

The length of time spent on a team, your team’s size and capacity, and the deadlines you’re facing, all factor into the equation.

I’ve found both approaches are valid, and which I choose depends on the situation at hand.

Building trust

Being a designer is full of challenges and tradeoffs. But that’s why it’s a job. That’s why we call it work.

We have to learn to push for the impossible while navigating and respecting the constraints of the people and organisations we work with.

Working out when to push our products to work harder for our users, or let go and accept a bit less is a skill. But it’s a skill worth honing, and one I’m still continuing to learn.

Push too hard and things fall apart. But avoid conflict and we may as well not be there.

Thankfully trust can be built up over time. And it’s reciprocal. So when you give it, you tend to get some back.

By working to give trust and to earn it back, with both our users and our teammates, we create the space we need to do our best work.

Thanks to Amy Hupe for turning my messy thoughts into something coherent.