Over the last few weeks, I’ve been lucky enough to chat with this year’s Canvas speakers to ask about their career journeys, their secret weapons, and the product mindset.
This week, I talked with Vuokko Aro, VP of Design at Monzo, and we discussed what it’s like to lead a design team during stages of hypergrowth, the importance of transparency and honest communication, what X-men character she’d be, and everything else in between.
To get things started, tell me a bit about yourself – what’s your role, what do you do, and who do you do it for?
I’m VP of Design at Monzo. That means I’m responsible for leading the design team and the overall quality and delivery of product design and brand design across all the customer-facing surfaces – mostly our iOS and Android apps, but also debit cards and marketing across all channels.
We’re a team of about 20 people, mostly Product Designers embedded in product squads, a few brand designers and a handful of user researchers. My role is split between working with the design team and with our multidisciplinary leadership team to make sure that design as a process, and designers as people, are represented well.
Is your background more on the digital or brand side?
Good question… I would say it’s on the product design side. Early on I studied economics, then worked in copywriting and concept design, and discovered the world of product through there. About fifteen years ago startups and product design became a thing, and I was swept away. So I have a very mixed background.
What’s the best thing about what you do at Monzo?
I feel like I have the best job in the world. First, I get to work with amazing people on amazing products, world-class designers, who are seriously talented and empathetic.
The second thing, I think, is bringing those product design methods and thinking into multidisciplinary leadership teams. That’s the newest part of all of this for me. I think it’s something we’re still learning about as an industry. You see more and more Chief Design Officers and people in higher roles now, and I find it really interesting and rewarding.
And then, finally, I love the design work itself and the fact that we’re a central part of our users’ lives. I know it’s a privilege to work on something so central and important to people.
I guess you could call Monzo one of THE disruptors, considering how you approached the finance sector. What do you think makes Monzo different from other banks?
There are so many other cool companies doing good stuff, too!
I do think we’re a truly customer-centred company and that’s what sets us apart from others. We also talk a lot about ‘first principles thinking’, and solving problems from the ground up. It’s becoming more and more popular and it’s around solving problems from the ground up. It’s one of our core values – removing assumptions and conventions, going straight to the core of a problem and reasoning from there. I think that helps you consider alternatives and challenge the status quo.
One of our other values as a company and one we measure performance against is ‘building polished and delightful products’. That’s something we like and it’s important for our people’s progression.
It's one of our core values, removing assumptions and conventions, going straight to the core of a problem and reasoning from there.
It’s interesting you mention people and measuring performance, as our theme for Canvas is ‘The Future of Product Teams’. More and more companies are transforming their operations to focus on the customer and product teams are central to this transformation. How are Monzo building out your teams? What’s important to you – skill set, diversity in the team, inclusion?
All of those things! I can share a little bit of detail about each.
When hiring we really care about finding talented designers who can independently work through a problem end-to-end, from defining a problem and working through it until it’s functional from a structural perspective, all the way to the polished pixels. We think it’s important for a designer to really own things end-to-end.
Like a full stack designer?
Yeah, definitely. There are other ways to do it and I’m sure other ways work for other companies, but we’ve found that having that ownership end-to-end really works for us.
We also hire for user-centricity and product sense across roles. Whether you’re a designer, an engineer, or in data, everyone is empathetic to the customer and cares about the experience, so it’s not just the designer who’s the voice of the customer. Of course, it’s their main focus, but everyone in the room cares.
Inclusion is obviously a huge part. We talk about diversity and inclusion and have done a lot to ensure we’re hiring a more diverse team. I’m really proud of our progress but hiring is just the start. We need to make sure that everyone we hire – different backgrounds, different kinds of personalities, different things going on in their lives – all feel comfortable in sharing their opinions. We would be hiring for nothing if we then spun those people out. We need to make them comfortable with sharing their points of view.
Recently, we’ve started doing pre-reads before meetings so people have time to digest them. We have Slack and asynchronous documents so you can comment. This allows quieter members to weigh in and share airtime. We want to make sure that everyone feels comfortable sharing their opinion in a way that suits them.
I feel like I’ve said this too many times, but I really like the X-Men, and how they’re thinking about teams where everyone brings their own kind of speciality, and together, they’re invincible.
Connor // Okay, I’ve got to ask this now… which X-Men character would you be?
Vuokko // Wolverine or Beast!
One more thing about teams – one of the core things that matters to us is creating independent full-stack teams. It’s important to have all the roles in one team so that they can move independently, fast, make their own decisions and define their roadmaps to solve problems. That’s key to how we make progress.
How many teams have you got in play right now?
Around a dozen. There are more teams, but I think there are a dozen full-stack teams with a designer cherry on top. And there are a few more that are based on performance that don’t require a designer.
It’s important to have all the roles in one team so that they can move independently, fast, make their own decisions and define their roadmaps to solve problems. That’s key to how we make progress.
When teams are working together, what is the process and where can you expect to find a designer?
I would say the product squads are a designer’s first team at Monzo. It’s obviously a matrix organisation – we have this horizontal design team where we get together regularly and support each other – but product squads are where they’ll spend most of their time. I think that’s where the best work happens, to be honest. You can have the coolest Figma file ever, but if it doesn’t make it into the users’ hands, it’s not worth much.
Designers definitely need to sit with engineers and make sure they’re designing things that can actually be built, and then working with the engineer to make sure that the customer experience we build is as intended.
Engineers also have great ideas – they have a creative profession. They think differently, often in a ‘structural or technical constraints’ kind of way. We have a lot of engineers who push designers to the limits of what’s technically possible, what’s new on iOS – that kind of stuff is really cool.
We have a lot of engineers who push designers to the limits of what's technically possible
When you come to designing these products, where do you draw inspiration from in your approach to design?
This is a fun one. I could talk about a tonne of stuff! I really like classics like Edward Tufte and Paul Rand, lots of contemporary artists, designers of products… I think fashion is always interesting to look at because of the way they approach collaborations and seasons and how they evolve. Also, any large app with, like, a billion users because we have ambitious growth plans!
We know people rely on us for accessing their money, so we want to use patterns that we know people have already learned to use on these bigger apps like Instagram or Twitter, ones that have a fluid user experience. There’s no reason why a bank can’t be a joy to use.
When it comes to techniques or processes, is there a secret weapon that you couldn’t work without? What’s in your toolbox?
First of all, I’m a huge proponent of a transparent process. Leading design or leading a team is a lot of responsibility. I think transparency is important in two ways. Firstly, you need to find a person, or people, you can trust so that you can openly share your thinking with them. It’s good to get different perspectives, healthy challenges, or confirmation that you’re doing the right thing.
Secondly, it’s sharing your process decisions and the things that you’re doing day-to-day. I feel like that’s something I’ve learned within the last two years – even if they seem boring to me, it helps others understand what my day-to-day life looks like. Being transparent about the process, what we do at each stage and what’s happening next, that’s been really good at putting people’s minds at ease and helping them understand.
Working within a disruptive business in Financial Services, what do you think is the next disruptive force within digital products?
I don’t know if this will be the next one, but I hope it will have something to do with more mainstream solutions around sustainability, making better consumer choices, and repairing the damage to the environment. There’s lots happening already, but I feel like there’s so much more to be done to help people make good decisions.
Fast-forwarding to your talk in November, what can we expect to hear about?
I’m going to talk about how Monzo has gone through hypergrowth in the last few years. I think I’ve grown with it as a designer and a leader – I used to have a limited set of role models, but then we as a company moved really fast. I got to compress a lot of work into a few years and learn that there are many different ways to lead design and teams.
I feel like I made errors and maybe thought I’m someone I’m not and also had big successes. I want to share case studies and stories from the past four years and share how what I’ve done has impacted the team – my journey, illustrated by stories from Monzo.
Final question – what made you say yes to speaking at Canvas?
A lot of things! For one, it’s been over a year since I was able to speak at a conference and I really miss it. It’s so fun to have something to look forward to, the energy and meeting cool people.
Plus, you’ll have an IMAX screen – I feel pressure to come up with something cool for that!
I’ve heard good things about the conference itself. There are high-quality talks and presenters that make me want to bring my best to the stage. It’s always nice to do a talk because it forces you to think about things thoroughly as well. I feel like I always learn.
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