There is one trait which is consistently present when teams build great products. Individuals and teams that exhibit a culture free of arrogance or a belief that their ideas or designs are better than others are displaying humility, the key to product success.

Why humility is crucial for design

Humility leads to characteristics and traits in people which impacts your ability to design effectively. At the beginning of a design project, humility assists with beginning and focussing on a problem rather than jumping straight to your idea of what a solution may be. By maintaining a curiosity to understand the problem, you are remaining open to there being multiple solutions which may be explored. Humility helps with hearing and being open to insights from research via a willingness to learn. It also helps to view validation as an opportunity to make a design better rather than checking how correct a solution is or isn’t. Having a mindset open to a range of potential solutions based on the process rather than preconceived ideas about what is right is key.

People who display traits of humility are predisposed to being more collaborative, more open to feedback and more curious. These traits are crucial for designing effective products. 

Humility is at the heart of human centred design

At its essence human centred design is about following a process whereby we seek to understand the people we are designing for and the problem we are seeking to solve, then identifying solutions which will meet these needs or solve these problems followed by iteratively refining our solutions. Each of these stages benefits from being free of arrogance or a belief that your ideas or designs are better than others’.

How to promote a culture of humility in your organisation 

There are multiple ways you can support a culture of humility in your organisation, with different approaches depending on your role or position. 

For leaders

As a leader your role is to set the tone for the organisation to embrace humility. This can be through a variety of means, formal and less formal:

  1. Implement new product and product enhancement processes that emphasise solving problems rather than creating solutions. Furthermore, work with your stakeholders and team members to steer conversations away from solutions and dig into the problems.
  2. Recruit new team members who strongly exhibit characteristics of humility.
  3. Incentivise team behaviour that supports and displays humility and avoid scenarios where the design ‘genius’ is celebrated. For example, provide opportunities to team members that display humility, call out and celebrate the behaviour being sought.  
  4. Promote the role of humility in achieving success. For example, when a product launch hits KPIs, ensure that any internal communications emphasise the process of initially understanding the problem, the research completed, and the contribution of an entire multi-disciplinary team to achieve the successful outcome. 
  5. Bake humility into your product vision and team principles. For example your team principles may emphasise using evidence to make decisions opposed to relying on individuals opinions.    

For everyone

Humility in design can be supported by all team members, regardless of role, from CEO to designers and developers. This starts with making a conscious decision and effort to avoid jumping straight to solutions. It also relies on informing discussions and decisions with data and evidence, as opposed to just the opinions and preferences of an individual. 

Here are 5 ways you can contribute to a culture of humility:

  1. Seek out a team member with a different set of skills or perspectives to help you to understand a problem. This could be a front-line team member (e.g. call centre), or someone from the legal team etc.
  2. Ask a question rather than providing an opinion. 
  3. Try to avoid statements that start with “I think customer’s want…” or “I think customer’s need…” when they are not based on data or evidence.
  4. Applying active listening skills.  
  5. Next time someone has an idea you don’t agree with, rather than dismissing it, use it as an opportunity to explore why they think it is worth pursuing.

Case study: Team culture of humility supported product success

Seek Learning, a course comparison site, were revising their mobile website. We worked with the UX team to undertake research into their customers to inform the designs. Humility was at the core of their approach to design, we started with a blank slate with no pre-determined product solutions. It was only as the research data came in that the team began to define the product. They attended research and received feedback with openness and a genuine desire to learn. Finally, during usability testing, the team viewed sessions as an opportunity to improve the product and did not view it as a critique of their work. Their team culture of humility supported product success; the final designs improved enrolment conversations by 24%.

Humility in design can lead to many benefits

Humility provides a foundation for effective design. It supports a culture where design benefits from an openness to a range of possible solutions rather than starting with a solution and searching for a problem. It also fosters a culture where evidence rather than opinions drive design decisions and where people work effectively as teams to achieve meaningful and successful product outcomes

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