Produced by Haallas, Parempaa bittiä (‘Better bits’) is a podcast that examines design, digital service design, and UX design from different perspectives. The podcast is in Finnish, but the episode highlights are translated into English and available in a blog format.
Our guest for the eigth episode of the Parempaa bittiä (‘Better Bits’) podcast is Principal Consultant Mikko Nurmi from the IT company Reaktor. He has diverse work experience in different areas of design. In this episode, Mikko talks with Head of Design Matti Linna from Haallas about building trust with the help of design.
Do not be afraid to be uncertain
Let’s start with some philosophical contemplation: What is trust? According to Mikko, it is like air that surrounds us as an invisible force. It is a feeling related to the assurance we feel towards people and things. Trust becomes concrete when applied to something requiring interaction and communication – namely human relationships and, in this case, employment.
“Design involves working together, and trust plays a strong role in this,” Mikko remarks.
“Another important factor is a customer-oriented approach to work. Building trust is an intrinsic part of the process. Understanding clients’ true needs and feelings is difficult unless some level of trust is first built in the relationship.”
In order for the design work to satisfy all parties, mutual openness is required. Designers cannot succeed in their work unless they know what the client needs and wants. Trust should therefore be taken into consideration early on when selling design and other projects, for example.
“We try to determine the current level of trust and how to get the client to open up,” Mikko explains.
This is an important topic, as identifying the root causes of issues is sometimes difficult, and in some cases the client only tells part of the story or unintentionally even lies about what they need. Another challenge that occurs in some situations is the need to build a good client relationship and strong trust very quickly.
“It’s not enough to only build trust with the client’s product owner or project manager – it must be built with all of the people involved in the project at the client’s end,” Mikko emphasises.
“The same thing applies to client research and engaging the client’s customers and interest groups: trust must also extend to them.”
Openness is key in building trust. When the designer shows vulnerability, it also helps the other party meet the designer halfway and open up about their own difficulties and strengths.
Trust is born through conflict
While trust between the designer and client is important, it also plays a key role within the project team. The importance of trust within a group of versatile professionals is particularly highlighted in the software industry, where project teams comprise a wide range of professionals.
“In larger projects, trust is born the most easily among like-minded individuals with similar skills,” Mikko asserts.
“In many projects, talking to the entire group together has shown that trust is lowest in the entire team’s shared ability to get things to work. This uncertainty may simmer right below the surface.”
A disturbance in teamwork is a hindrance to everyone. Not only does it eat away at the team members’ well-being at work but it is also a hindrance to the client who will not receive the best possible end result in such a case. Mikko considers it to be of the utmost importance to engage the team in a timely discussion about dynamics, working together and shared ground rules.
“It would be great if the team members actually got to know each other. In many cases, everyone is extremely busy at the start of a project. After the project kick-off, all of this trust building within the team and the risks related to the start phase are pushed aside.”
Heterogeneity is also an asset in design projects. It is important to find a sufficient number of different types of people for teams. Some people are very confident in their own success, but there is also a need for trust in shared success. Mikko says that it would be good to mix things up with balancing forces.
“Doubting Thomases are welcome to question and consider whether the trust within the team is genuine and whether something still needs to be done to get things running smoothly,” Mikko says.
“It takes skill to build a team with the perfect balance of ‘life will carry me’ attitude and reasoned pessimism.”
In short, trust is born through conflict. There is a saying that goes: ‘No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.’ Some mutual sabre-rattling at the start of the project may sometimes be a good thing. It means tackling the difficult questions and problem areas amongst the team and not out in the field with the client.
Key to a successful workshop
Workshops are at the core of the software industry. They involve putting a mixed group of people into a room to work on an idea, solution or definition through a method or process in order to move the project forwards. However, a functional workshop does not build itself. Mikko encourages workshop leaders to consider the matter at hand from the perspective of the group of participants.
“What type of group will be participating in the workshop, have they worked with each other before, and what types of power structures exist within the group? In many international projects, these power structures may be surprisingly strict. Attention must therefore be paid to making sure that everyone trusts that they are allowed to freely express their opinion. Trust is born from a sense of security,” Mikko says.
As a piece of advice for workshop leaders, Mikko says that vulnerability and openness are better tools for leading a workshop than taking on a circus director’s role.
“A workshop should be based on the idea that everyone is there to work for a common goal.”
Allow the client relationship to breath freely
If there is no trust built around the client’s needs, its place may be taken by guesswork that shrouds the true purpose of the project. Mikko says that it is important to help the client understand both the overall project and the matters requiring inspection and verification.
Consultants in particular often face the expectation that they can provide the client with all-encompassing answers.
“It takes enormous guts to be openly able to say that while we know items A and B, we unfortunately cannot say with certainty that items X and Y have yet been solved at this point,” Mikko says, pointing out that being honest about one’s own uncertainty is once again a strength and not at all a weakness.
According to Mikko, the next level in the relationship of trust built with the client is being able to offer something surprising to them. This level can only be reached when there is a sense of camaraderie in the relationship – an unspoken agreement that the client allows the designers to improvise and promises not to be disappointed if the spontaneous performance does not yield results.
“When you provide the team of creators with this type of flow, miracles will start happening. It means getting rid of the wrong pressures and maintaining a positive and expectant mood to an appropriate degree,” Mikko says.
He has personally noticed that the stricter the client’s instructions, the more uncertain the client feels in reality. These types of clients do not necessarily trust their own professional skills and may insist on things being done through a particular design method or framework.
“Clients who trust customer orientation or design as the carrying force provide the team with more freedom to implement the project as they see fit.”
Be empathetic, it will pay off
Empathy is at the heart of user-oriented design. Designers have a large variety of methods at their disposal for generating empathy towards the user and client.
One of these methods is an empathy map that illustrates feelings, thoughts and actions in a particular situation. Another method is a client journey map that illustrates the client’s actions in different phases of the process. Mikko recommends carrying out method exercises both with clients and within teams.
“The project manager should identify any needs for positive support and reassurance throughout the project and also recognise any cases of false confidence.”
The project leader plays a key role because they are responsible for the overall project, building trust and creating a good environment for the team to work in. The project manager must stay alert the entire time and stay on top of the team’s movements. Any issues related to personal chemistry or work quality must be addressed immediately.
Mikko says that one potential pitfall is the relationship between trust and burnout. It is linked to excessively positive thinking and trust in people’s capability as well as the type of person with hero tendencies. The former occurs in situations in which one team member wants to prove their trustworthiness and ends up driving themselves into the ground.
“Younger designers entering the industry in particular feel pressured to prove themselves, even though they also doubt their skills. It’s perfectly okay to admit to yourself and others that there are still gaps in your skills,” Mikko remarks.
According to Mikko, a person with hero tendencies is someone who takes on the weight of the entire project if it runs into problems. This type of person has unwavering trust in their ability to rescue a sinking boat.
“The truth is that no individual can carry the entire project on their shoulders – it always takes the whole team.”
What have I learned?
With confidence built on years of experience, Mikko would like to caution young designers in particular against falling into the pitfalls of imposter syndrome and wanting to prove themselves.
“I’ve seen how important it is to get people to open up about their uncertainties, no matter how small. Discussing things together helps build faith in the fact that we have put together a good team,” Mikko says.
“When meeting new people – clients and team members alike – you should approach them with trust and not change your opinion unless given actual reasons to do so.”
Mikko advises that you should approach things with a positive attitude.
“It’s immediately evident in the way that you talk to the other person or approach cooperation. Keep an open mind.”
Mikko has always been fascinated with understanding the actions of individuals and companies: What motivates users? How can we find the root causes of problems? Which issues are so important to solve that they can be turned into business? This fascination has now kept Mikko interested in developing services and practices together with clients and their customers for more than 15 years.
At Reaktor, Mikko becomes excited about ambitious projects that bring experts in fields such as circular economy, data science or robotics to the same table. After work, Mikko continues his creative activities either with his children, in the wood workshop in the basement, or in the garden.
The podcast is hosted by Haallas' Head of Design Matti Linna. Matti has more than ten years of experience in UX design and service design in various industries in the public and private sectors. At the heart of Matti's design thinking are insights gained through in-depth user and customer understanding that can be used to create useful, functional, and easy-to-use digital services. In his free time, Matti can be met at the Crossfit Hall or on the mountain bike trail.