Finding confidence in design decisions

At some point in their career, most professionals will face what I like to call, “The Confidence Conundrum”; how do I propose a solution with an “I got this!” attitude while managing my internal feeling of “do I got this?”? 

This can be particularly challenging for designers who are taking action based on a complex combination of experience, data, project motivations, personal motivations, taste, and instinct... and convincing stakeholders who each have their own experience, data, project motivations, personal motivations, tastes, and instincts.

While we can’t control everything about the design process, we can control the narrative in our own heads. Here are some activities that can help you build more confidence and show up with the “I got this” attitude and believe it.

Note: I recommend doing them in a small group with your peers. Learning about other people’s experiences is almost always eye-opening and strangely validating. Let’s get started. Keep an open mind and jump right in.

The Early Scary Things

Exploring early life experiences around building confidence can help us re-frame our personal narratives from a broader, more generous, perspective. I’ve found this engenders a warmer attitude towards the work we need to do on ourselves, and makes us more likely to actually do it. Doing this exercise with others also creates an environment of empathy where everyone can better understand and support each other in their confidence-building.

✨Activity Time✨

Think of a time in your life when you were not yet confident in yourself in regards to a particular skill, activity, or discipline. What steps did you take to achieve confidence?

  • Write a few examples down on your own (2-5 min)
  • Talk with your group about your fear and how you built confidence (5 min)

Here are some examples from our workshop:

  • My experience: When I was a kid, my biggest fear was that I wouldn’t be able to read out loud without stuttering. I had zero confidence, despite the hours I would spend practicing to myself in my room. So whenever I had the chance, I would have my parents and grandparents read with me, asking them to correct my mistakes along the way. I needed their help a lot at first, but eventually, I could read on my own with no mistakes — I was even placed in an advanced reading group!
  • “As a child, I lacked confidence in swimming and I overcame it by telling my mom. She helped by signing me up for swim classes and she gave me swim goggles. From there, I couldn’t avoid participating when I was in class since I was almost the oldest of the kids :) I still lack the confidence but know how to better manage it.”

Building Confidence with Data and Experience

Two of the best ways to build confidence are: A. Gathering more data or B. Building more experience. Chances are you’ll have to do both, a lot, over and over again, to achieve full confidence.

DataThe designer’s job is to solve complex problems, and to make their solutions look easy-peasy — like there was never even a problem to begin with. If you aren’t feeling very confident in your design decisions, perhaps you don’t have enough information to really get to work. You can build your confidence up with data, validation, and advice. Talking to peers, people who have solved similar problems, or people who are experiencing the problem first hand will enable you to come to more meaningful conclusions. This is my favorite part of the design process — filling my brain to the absolute brim with every single variable I can find that’s related to the problem. Even when we’re sleeping or “not working,” our brains get to work putting the pieces together, making our solutions more and more obvious as we work through it. 

ExperienceHere’s the thing nobody wants to hear; sometimes, building confidence just takes time. Our first exercise on childhood fear is a great example of this. Constant practice was the only thing that made me the star reader I am today. We build our experience from doing the thing that is scary over and over again until suddenly it isn’t scary anymore; and that’s confidence.

The journey of building experience, however, is not a straight path. It is a winding and twisting road that spirals around itself multiple times like a spirograph. Designers are often handed the same kinds of problems to solve over and over again throughout their careers. Each time we’re handed one of these problems, we are able to leverage the experience from the past and apply it with nuanced meaning. And with each experience, we create real emotional connections to the outcomes of our past decisions. This emotional connection to our successes and failures is the strongest connection we have to our own feelings of confidence.

✨Activity Time✨

  • Write about an area in your life where you would like to build more confidence today. This could be a hobby, a design project, or any area of your life where you wish you had more confidence. (5 min)
  • Share your current scary thing from exercise 2 with your group. What do you think you could use more of in your current confidence conundrum? Data, or courage to step into the experience? Maybe it’s a little of both :)

Here are some examples that came out of the workshop:

  1. My experience: Right now I’m lacking confidence in giving unwanted feedback to my direct reports. It just terrifies me! But I know that I’m not doing them any favors by keeping feedback to myself. This is definitely an experience problem. It’s going to take a lot of courage, but I’m just going to have to keep practicing this and trust that it will get more and more natural over time.
  2. “I’m currently struggling with confidence in my design craft and decisions. I overcome the former by reading articles, studying how other products are executed and asking for feedback from the product team/design friends. I overcome the latter with research and talking to stakeholders.”

I hope this helped you on your confidence-building journey. If you try it out with your team or a group of friends or colleagues, I’d love to hear about it. You can reach me at