How to deal with team conflict in a design project

Last checked and updated on 4 March 2020

Conflict is “a struggle between people which may be physical, or between conflicting ideas.” (Source)

And for some people, conflict can be incredibly uncomfortable to be around, especially if you naturally shy away from any form of challenge.

But when it comes to a design project, is all conflict inherently negative? 

Should you actively steer your team away from it? Or actually towards it, in the hope of it producing even better results in the long term? 

Why conflict in design isn’t necessarily a bad thing

Picture the scenario. Your team is tasked with working on a new design project and yet there’s an element of the process that they can’t reach agreement on. 

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Perhaps because the product team is driving the agenda in one particular direction in order to deliver on their main KPI. But this sits badly with the designer, because it’s completely at odds with best practice.

So the project manager comes in with a completely different suggestion, designed to appease both parties. And yet somehow, the whole design process is back to square one. 

The result? Entrenched positions and internal conflict. And worse still, a design project that has ground to a halt. 

So what’s the solution? It’s tempting for the strongest personalities within the group to take over and impose a solution they believe to be right, in order to deliver on time. 

But the danger here is that the end result may not in fact be the best version or in the best interests of the company or the customer.  

The better solution is to understand that conflict – in the sense of conflicting ideas – can actually be a sign of a healthy team and that it should be factored in as part of the design process, in order to produce an end result that meets – or even exceeds – the brief.

How to manage conflict positively within your team

If conflict can be seen as sign of a healthy team and considered a necessary part of the design process, how do you go about fostering a culture that actually encourages it? Whilst keeping everyone safe from any negativity?  

We have a few suggestions about how you might go about achieving this: 

Establish a clear strategy

We have previously talked about how to strengthen your team using a digital strategy, essentially agreeing a plan to achieve a clear set of goals using a range of digital tools and platforms. 

Why is strategy important? Because without a clear strategy, you end up with what Paul Boag in his ‘5 steps to deliver order out of your digital chaos’, defines as a ‘decentralised model’.

This is essentially where “a larger organisation finds itself running a whole host of different digital initiatives without any overarching strategy” which then negatively impact each other, leading to internal conflict within the team. 

As far as this relates to your design project, or any project for that matter, it’s imperative to have an agreed strategy right from the outset before you let your teams loose on the detail. 

That way, any conflict can be brought right back to the overarching goal that you are all trying to achieve together for the customer. 

Remove your emotions

It is tempting to let your emotions support your argument rather than firm and impartial evidence. A key factor to resolving conflict within the design process is to separate out anything which feels emotional or personal. And replace it with hard facts. 

Keep the customer at the centre of the process

It’s tempting to let the process drive the outcome but at the end of the day, the customer has to be happy with the output. This should form part of the agreed strategy. But of course, there is never an easy and linear path to delivery. 

As UserTesting writes in their article ‘3 tips for resolving internal design disputes’ “At the end of the day, the success or failure of a project depends on your customers. Do they like the product? Do they want it? Can they figure out how to use it? Will they actually use it? Sometimes, the most convincing argument for (or against) a design will come straight from your target market.”

It’s therefore worth remembering that the final product has to meet with the approval of the customer.

And whilst it should be every design team’s job to inform a client if they believe that a design suggestion simply won’t work for the end user, it’s also important to keep the client involved at every step of the process. That way, the end result will be a good fit with their expectations. 

Tie your arguments back to business goals

It can be pointless arguing for or against a design change if that design change does not further the customer’s needs or aims for the product. 

UserTesting suggests “Rather than dwelling on the visual advantages of a design, focus on what the intended result will be. Will more people sign up for a free trial because the button was more prominent? Will average sale size increase if you improve your search feature? The more specific you get about your anticipated outcome, the more likely you’ll be to convince others.” 

It is clearly far more persuasive if you can tie your design point to a quantifiable uplift in sales. 

For example, if you can evidence a 15% likely increase in someone clicking on a button because, as we wrote in our article ‘Why is everyone talking about UX writing?’ you have used an active rather than passive voice – for instance, ‘click on item to see full description’ rather than ‘if you click on the search button you can see the full description of the item.’

Define an end point for disagreement 

We have established that a difference of opinion is healthy, under the right circumstances. But left to fester, it will inevitably turn sour and of course, ultimately disadvantage the customer. 

So it’s worth considering how long, as a project manager, you want to allow your team to debate their differences before reaching a consensus.

Whether this is 24 hours or two weeks is entirely up to you and your individual time scales. But the concept is the most important bit here. You cannot let conflict roll on forever, no matter how constuctive it is.

And once everyone has had a fair chance to put forward their ideas, along with their reasoning, once a consensus has been reached, that has to be the end of that particular discussion, in order for the project to move on.

Design with conflict is art

To conclude, conflict is a necessary part in any design process and whilst it should be encouraged, it is equally important that it is carefully managed.

In their blog on the topic of ‘Handling design conflict as a non-designer’, Marvel suggest that:

“As a team, we should preach and believe that the right kind of conflict is critical to making good design. Design without conflict is art. Conflict without design reasoning is just an opinion.”

If you’d like to discuss how we can help with your design process, contact us for a chat.

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Important – The information provided in our articles is intended to be for general purpose use only, and not advice for you or your business. We strive to publish accurate information, but encourage you to fact-check and seek expert guidance. You should always speak to a qualified professional to get tailored advice about how to operate your business under your specific requirements and circumstances.