Gaining Designers’ Trust: How I did it. 5 tips.

I’ve never had “designer” in my title. I’ve never taken a design class. I’ve never had Sketch on my computer.

Yet, for 5.5 years, I was responsible for building and leading the design team at Thumbtack as part of my role leading product. (In the early days I was managing individual designers directly; more recently I had a fantastic head of design, Audrey, reporting to me.)

Of all the people I’ve led, designers, by far, have required the most practice to work with effectively. They have been the hardest to build trust with. I don’t think my experience is unique.

At dinners of product leader peers, leading and/or collaborating with Design is always a topic of conversation. Heck, I just got invited to speak on a panel specifically about this topic.

Doing these things didn’t just make our design team happier, they made our product better. I hope they have the same impact on your company.

1. Geek out on design

I care about good design. I enjoy using products and being in environments that are well designed and love seeing how good design delights others. But my passion is meaningless if I don’t show it to the designers I work with.

Given that I don’t have design in my background, designers are often skeptical that I care. Geeking out about some design thing — not necessarily related to our product — is a way I connect with a designer and demonstrate my interest. The conversation is usually fun, and I always learn something.

When I’m interviewing designers, I try to ask a few detailed questions about their previous work or point out what I love about the design of something. Soon after a designer joins, I find a way to connect with them over some piece of design outside of our scheduled design reviews.

Geeking out about your product is helpful too. Not only does this reinforce that you really care, but it also fosters a shared mindset around where we should take the customer experience.

2. Be the voice of the customer

Designers — and everyone else — respect the person who can clearly synthesize what customers need. As a product person, it’s my job to know the customer. Demonstrating that knowledge builds my credibility. Sharing it helps everyone do his or her job better.

Designers are much more open to critique if they feel like it’s coming from someone with a strong grasp of customer thinking. I often start a piece of feedback with “Given we know X, Y, and Z about our customers….” I reference specific anecdotes: “When I was talking to personal chef Sara last week, she said….” When we’ve done customer interviews, but I don’t know the outcome, I always ask, “What were the takeaways from your interviews?”

3. Paint a compelling vision

Everyone gets excited about clear, bold vision — but especially designers. Lack of clarity around the problem and/or vision is almost always the root cause of conflict with designers. Designers often get stuck because they are trying to solve too many problems at once.

Visions just don’t apply to the company; Individual product teams should also have visions too. Whether I’m leading product for a company or leading a cross-functional product team, it’s my job to make sure we collaboratively develop and communicate a shared vision. (You can read more about my suggestions around how to set a vision in this post.)

When I have a vision in place the designers are excited about, we have fewer battles about the details and all get through our days with more smiles and less frustration.

4. Defer on the visuals

You’ll rarely find me giving any input on color, type weight or spacing. Why? It’s not that I don’t have opinions. It’s that I don’t think my opinions should win the day because I’m not the expert.

If you constantly find yourself compelled to give visual design feedback, you should step back and understand what the root issue is. A need for control? Have the wrong team in place? If it’s the former, you need to think carefully about how destructive the desire for control can be. If it’s the latter, you need to think critically about your team’s gaps. Staying off this turf shows respect for their craft and keeps me focused on the UX where I can contribute more.

5. Solve tough design problems

There’s no better way to show I can hang than by helping when designers are stuck. The key: only when they actually are stuck. Helping solve problems before a designer has had a chance to try him or herself is disempowering and insulting.

But when there’s a genuine obstacle, make time to help designers design. Maybe your fresh set of eyes is what they need. I often do a little bit of paper sketching to get my head around a problem before I get in a room and then I work through things on a whiteboard or alongside them on Sketch.

This isn’t something that came overnight for me. It takes experience to help solve these challenging UX problems — not “as” a designer but “with” a designer. I wasn’t afraid to dive in, and I’m now so much better than I was when I started.

Whether you’re a product person directly responsible for a design team or you’re a product person who works hand-in-hand with one, I hope these tips help you build a better product and have more fun along the way.

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