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Using the Mindsets of Relationship Design to Show Up and Make a Difference in Times of Crisis

Elizabeth Miller
Jul 6 · 6 min read

Relationship dynamics naturally change and evolve over time, but that change is accelerated in times of crisis. For those of us working from home, our relationships with our colleagues look very different than they did a few months ago. We have to be more deliberate with communication, protective of our time, and innovative in our methods. Our customers’ needs have changed too, and we must be thoughtful in how we engage and support them.

This situation is also a catalyst for rapid institutional change. It’s a lot all at once, and that’s not even taking into account all the ways the pandemic has thrown into sharp relief our society’s massive health, racial, and economic inequality. But if we lean into our relationships with people, and think about how our products and services can strengthen them, we can not only make it through this crisis, but emerge with the skills to build a better normal.

Design offers us tools we can use to prioritize, and strengthen, our relationships. If we look beyond each individual interaction, we can use design to support the connections between people, products, and brands. At Salesforce, we call this practice Relationship Design.

The Mindsets of Relationship Design

Relationship Design is a creative practice anyone can use to drive business and social value by building strong relationships with customers and community. We believe that these four key mindsets can help us build strong, valued relationships in our work and in our lives:

  • Compassion: Lead with personal connection, especially in areas where process could confine us
  • Courage: Push ourselves in ways that align with our values, even if they make us feel vulnerable
  • Intention: Plan with purpose, keeping in mind the ripple effects of our actions
  • Reciprocity: Exchange values in the service of growth and relationship longevity

Each of these mindsets is a collection of beliefs that guide and shape our habits. And each works to reinforce the others.

Building a Better Normal

As part of San Francisco Design Week, Salesforce co-hosted a virtual panel on Relationship Design with the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA). The three panelists, who practice different types of design in different parts of Salesforce, all work to build relationships with our customers and our customers’ customers. And all have worked on projects devoted to helping our customers stabilize, get back to work, and start building a better normal. Karen Semone worked to create the COVID-19 Response Playbook to help customers navigate these tumultuous times. Bethany Pickard did discovery and strategy on contact tracing for, an innovative suite of apps, guidance, and best practices for getting back to work. And Simon Smith was a co-lead for Salesforce’s cross-disciplinary, international design and research team. The panel was moderated by Salesforce chief design officer Justin Maguire.

The Power of Compassion

“Listening like you’ve never listened before is the key to Relationship Design in today’s context.”

– Karen Semone, Senior Director, Content and Communications Lead

Compassion starts with an understanding of others and their perspectives. We put it into practice by making connections and finding common ground. We’ve had to lean on our colleagues more than ever as we deal with space constraints, personal and family obligations, and shifting work priorities. In her conversations with customers, Karen is hearing more and more about the empathy developing as the ordinary barriers of work culture break down. We see the insides of our colleagues’ homes, meet their children and pets, and get to know them on a deeper level than ever before. This growing understanding of who people are is leading to stronger and more personal relationships, and that’s not something that will disappear once we return to the office.

Opportunities for Trust

“Lean into trust as a way to lean into courage.”

– Bethany Pickard, Principal Experience Strategist

We’re in a time of what Justin calls “no-regrets decision making.” Change is accelerating, and there’s potential for our work to have a much bigger impact. At this pace, decisions can’t come solely from the executive ranks. Instead, leaders have to entrust and empower their teams to make quick decisions, creating opportunities for trust. All of this has led to a flattening of the corporate hierarchy and a much more mobile workforce. It takes courage to make this level of risk-taking work — courage from leaders to entrust their teams with critical business moves, and courage from employees to challenge the status quo in service of greater impact. As Karen says, “Risk-taking is huge. Decision-making is huge. Doing nothing is the only non-option right now.”

Designing for a Better Healthcare System

“We’re not designing pixels.”

- Simon Smith, VP Product Design, Industries

Healthcare is, by nature, complex. Building a healthcare platform that meets a diverse set of needs among a variety of users pushes complexity to a new level. It requires purposeful planning, and understanding that actions come with both foreseeable and unforeseeable ripple effects. When designing contact-tracing tools for, Simon and team had to create an elastic system that could adapt to the needs of whatever community uses it. They were challenged to imagine a better system while staying grounded in reality. Simon calls the experience “a balance of wild optimism and deep skepticism” — a tension that designers must often work within. They imagine, innovate, and inspire, then have to bring a design to fruition among the situational constraints. Setting out with a clear intention, and thinking through the intentions of your users, can help cut through some of the fog.

Reciprocity in a Connected System

“It’s about listening actively and understanding that we co-create the best solutions when we get very close to the problem, together.”

– Bethany Pickard, Principal Experience Strategist

Relationships thrive in an atmosphere of shared learning, mutual accountability, and openness. If there is anything these last months have shown us, it’s how interconnected we all are, and how much we must depend on one another. We wear masks when we leave our houses to protect not only ourselves, but the people around us. We’ve been forced to witness, and work to repair, the fraying social contract between individuals and our communities, employers and employees, governments and citizens — all of them mutually beneficial relationships that play a crucial role in fighting this pandemic.

When Bethany was leading the discovery work around, she embedded with a team and went through contact tracing training. The insights she brought back to her team helped them better understand the problem they’re trying to solve and the challenges customers are facing. She sought to understand how this new relationship could be facilitated reciprocally, and the resulting insights led to technology that ultimately better serves its users.

New Challenges, New Mindsets

The current scenario is challenging us in ways that none of us was prepared for. It is also an opportunity for innovation and growth. To make something good from this tragedy, we need to sense and respond at speed, adapt, dare to take risks — and build it all on a foundation of trust. The new, more empowered, relationships that we develop are strengthened by compassion, courage, intention, and reciprocity. With that foundation, we can develop innovative products, services, and solutions that better understand and serve the users they are meant for.

Special thanks to Bethany, Simon, Karen, and Justin for a wonderful panel.

Watch the full panel session here.

Throughout FY21, Salesforce and AIGA will host four more discussions on the mindsets and behaviors of Relationship Design. The next one will be August 12 — please join us!

Follow us at @SalesforceUX.

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