5 Methods to Earn Client Trust on Design Thinking Projects

Recently I was engaged on a design thinking project when one of my project sponsors expressed doubt that all the work we’d done to date would ever result in success. “They’re just too entrenched in their way of thinking,” she told me. “You’ll never get them to change their minds”.

I felt daunted but not discouraged. I knew we were on the right track, because we had done all the right things- defined our stakeholder groups, interviewed a dozen plus stakeholders, brainstormed novel solutions and narrowed them down to our best options. What was holding us back was not people who couldn’t or wouldn’t change, it was dwelling in the ambiguous middle between what was and what could be.

Trust is currency in the land of experience design, and you will quickly find yourself homeless and jobless if you don’t manage it well. In order to help the project team move forward, I needed to assure them that ambiguity is part of the process, and not a sign of us being off track. How could I build confidence with them that we would indeed arrive somewhere good?

  1. Be Clear What Success Looks Like

At the beginning of every engagement, I ask the project team what success looks like, to make sure we’re aligned that where we end is where we want to be. When I looked back at my notes, I confirmed that we had made significant progress towards our goal, and I shared this with my project sponsor at a check-in meeting. Being reminded of our progress reassured her that we weren’t off track at all- yes, we had work to do, but our project goals were well within reach as long as we kept moving forward.

2. Listen For Tension

Customers, project sponsors, or really, just people, aren’t always forthcoming with their objections. In this case, it can be helpful to listen for what’s NOT being said. I think of this as “listening for tension”- the slight pauses after you’ve made a recommendation, the lack of enthusiasm in conversation, more questions than statements. And rather than letting these moments go unmentioned, I bring them front and center. “Sandra, is there something that bothers you about this decision?” or “Ravi, you seem uncomfortable with the direction we’re moving in. Is there something that you would do differently?” In any project, I know I’m the one with the least amount of information or experience, so listening for tension is how I catch knowledge gaps, errors in judgement, or often times, just better approaches. Don’t be afraid to unearth objections- they are often the keys to better project execution, while ignoring them can blow up in your face, big time.

3. Adopt the Mindset of “Shared Success”

You cannot build a successful design practice with dissatisfied clients or project sponsors. Their idea of success has to become your own, and if your empathy exercises have been illuminating, it should be relatively easy to identify with your client. By the end of a project engagement, I usually have become so enmeshed with project teams that neither they nor external stakeholders see me as an external party- we are truly one team. And it’s not a show- I care deeply about the success of their project because I care deeply about their success, and it still feels like an honor to me to play a role in their achievement.

4. Focus on Customer Delight

In any project engagement, there is a base level of expectation- that you will adhere to a rough timeline, say, or plan project check-in meetings. Doing this won’t earn you any accolades, and it doesn’t set you apart from any of your peers. What I’ve found that does differentiate, that ensures that project teams will not only want to work with you again but will recommend you to others, is focusing on client delight. As design thinkers, we’re pretty skilled at drawing inferences from data, but when you turn this lens on your customer you have the opportunity to build deeply meaningful relationships. What really matters to them? What do they get excited about? What do they value? I’ve found delight can look like sharing my methods with those who have more than a passing interest in my work, or serving as an (unpaid) ear for those who want to bounce ideas around, or volunteering to provide a few slides for their big presentation. And it’s not insincere- I want clients to know that I value them as people, vital contributors to my own career success. It’s not a career ladder, it’s a web.

5. Success Breeds Success

Ultimately, the best way to build credibility is to create a track record of success. When clients are delighted with your work, when they feel that you share their goals and are invested in their success, they will not only sign you up for repeat engagements, they will tell others about your work. And have others recommend you is the best credibility you could ultimately ask for.

Fortunately, the project I outlined above landed successfully, and my project sponsor was shocked to discover that people can indeed change their minds, when the solution seems like the obvious choice to make. But without going through the steps above, I would never have convinced her to see the process through. Ultimately, what we trust is not processes and procedures but people- be invested in your client’s success, and you’ll close any credibility gap.




Bethany has seen firsthand how design thinking/ human centered design can transform people and organizations. Currently practicing in Northern Virginia.

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Bethany Gardner

Bethany Gardner

Bethany has seen firsthand how design thinking/ human centered design can transform people and organizations. Currently practicing in Northern Virginia.

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