Interview

A chat with Hugo Cornejo, Head of Design at Monzo

Hugo Cornejo
Head of Design at Monzo

You’ve been at Monzo since the very beginning. I’d love to hear what brought you here.

It all happened by chance. Three years ago, I was on sabbatical. Me and my partner decided to move from Spain to London to learn English. I was working on an app called Thoughts at the time, but was ready for some time off. Four months after moving in, though, I met one of the Monzo co-founders (Jason Bates). They were looking for a designer to start… a bank. Three weeks later, we were all starting a company. We were team of thirteen people, had no product and no customers. We didn’t even have a name (not even Mondo, at the time).

Let’s go back in time a bit further – what was your first job?

I’m actually an engineer by trade. I studied Computer Science and my first role was back in 2003. I was hired as a developer by the library of my university in Madrid. I was developing web-based software that then was used in different departments across the university, using PHP and some now obscure technology that I’m embarrassed to talk about.

How did you transition from engineering to design?

I remember liking design since I was a little kid. When I was asked “what do you want to be when you grow up?” I would always say that I wanted to be an inventor. I’d spend tons of time messing around with my big brother’s IBM 286 computer… Programming a bit but also drawing shit on Paintbrush and Dr. Halo (today we call that “pixel art”) and formatting my own newspapers with Ventura Publisher (today we call that “fake news”).

I went to study Computer Science at university because I really liked the idea of forcing computers to do what you want them to do but to be honest I didn’t know there was something called “Interaction Design”. It took me ages to find out! I was working on an iPad app as a side project (right when the first iPad was announced) and by chance I ended up meeting the guy who would eventually become my professional mentor Javier Cañada that was also pioneering design for iPad at that time.

This gentleman would spend his day thinking about how products should work. He wasn’t writing code, not implementing, but thinking about what needs to happen on the screens and giving it the right shape. That blew my mind. I decided that’s what I wanted to do so I went and study a postgrad in interaction design in Madrid.

When did you consider you became a ‘proper designer’?

Before studying my postgrad I wasn’t a designer by any means, I was just this web developer guy who knew a little bit of design and had good enough taste to build a website to a “kind of OK” standard. I knew nothing about design principles and all the really important stuff of how and why design works under the hood.

Once I started to learn all that stuff I somehow managed to land a design job at Ticketea (a Spanish startup of DIY ticketing services, similar to Eventbrite and Ticketmaster) as their first in-house designer. That was my first experience joining an early-stage startup. I learnt a lot by doing and I loved it very much. It was a very cool project because I needed to design systems that could accommodate both the booking of a small office party for 10 people or a Lady Gaga concert for 50,000. Another cool thing is that we had to produce printed tickets so I got to learn a bit about printed design, what different kinds of stock you can use, what fancy inks are available out there (wink wink, hot coral), how to deal with printing houses, etc.

Then I got an opportunity to join a very prestigious design studio in Madrid and I couldn’t say no. I moved with them and worked for a few years designing products for startups and some big corps too. It was there where I learnt a lot about product design strategy and how to look at the big picture of problems. It’s funny how all startups face the same kind of design challenges… once you’ve seen a few you start identifying patterns and trying to anticipating what’s next.

What does it mean to be 'Head of Design' at Monzo?

This changed a lot over time. At the beginning, when we were a small team and had to make the first important product decisions, I’d say I was spending most of my time designing foundational pieces while trying to get my teammates to align with the visio. I had a lot of input on the product as the first designer, but I was also here to juggle between different opinions.

Today, I lead a team of 7 people (and we’re hiring!), so my role is mostly about growing the team, managing priorities, keeping everyone happy and formulating Monzo’s design strategy. It’s always about finding a balance between the macro and the micro. For example, we’re about to launch ‘Pots’, a feature that lets Monzo users set up their own bags of money for different purposes. This was a massive project, where I only provided the initial structure, explaining how this relate to other features and future requirements, what we can unlock if we make this right. I did literally a 1% of the work, and my colleague Zander Brade did the remaining 99%. It’s like architecture, in a way. If you’re working on making changes to a building, you first need to plan the structural work so more people can then operate on that floor later. You also have to work on the micro level at times, going in and checking the small details and providing guidance on these. It’s hard to do this without micromanaging too much. I’m learning every day… and I’m not there yet!

What’s the best part of your role?

When you have a team, anything you define gets amplified. It’s a dangerous position to be in, as a single decision you make can have a big impact, either good or bad. It’s also super exciting. I love these moments when, a short week after discussing an idea, we have a design review session and I realise in that timeframe, a member of the team has managed to design an entire flow from start to finish. And it’s excellent work. And I can already see users loving it.

And the toughest?

To say no. Let go of things. Sometimes you need to accept your time is too valuable for certain things. For example, there are many aspects in our apps that we’ve neglected for some time. When we’re at the point of prioritising what to work on, there are so many other things that are much more urgent and important. It’s painful, especially as a designer, you like the idea of creating solid things. When I worked for this design studio back in Spain, we’d work on projects and not launch them unless we thought they were ‘perfect’.

Here at Monzo, everything is different. We have to move really fast and iterate often. It’s tough to accept that as a designer. You have to let go off the idea that it’s possible to perfect your work until you’re really happy with it.

At Monzo, you’re known for building an active community around your product, and listening to your users. For example, you have this forum. Tell me a bit more about how things work internally. Does everyone have to contribute?

There’s no formal process around it for people in the product or design team. Everyone contributes on their own time, because they like seeing what users think. What makes it work well internally is that it’s really well integrated with your inbox. If someone mentions you on the forum, you get an email (if you want to spam me, you know how to, now!) Tristan Thomas, our Head of Marketing, who we initially hired as our first Community Manager is the one who put the forum in place. Actually, he’s the person who embodies our tone of voice and the way we communicate. He put tons of efforts into putting it together and championed it internally. Until recently, I was the top contributor on the leaderboard, but recently lost top position to Tristan. Little bastard!

If you think about the person you were at the beginning of your career, what advice would you give to yourself?

Good question. Let me think of a non-bullshit answer.

I would tell myself to share more, earlier in the process. I remember my early days as a designer. I would tell people: ‘I will show you when it’s finished’. I was obsessed with the ‘final version’. But there’s no such thing. Most of the times, the issue is that you’re just scared of people’s reactions, of them judging you. So it’s common for junior designers to have this tendency to keep things for themselves, to preserve their ego. But it’s so important to get feedback, to learn and improve your work. So I would tell myself to share more ‘half-baked’ , early designs to check with peers, users and stakeholders if I’m going in the right direction. This is actually something I only recently got better at, in my time at Monzo. It’s hard!

How do you suggest designers do this: share more, earlier?

Framing is so important. There’s nothing worse than useless feedback: people just commenting on your designs without understanding the context. Don’t just go and show your screen, asking ‘what do you think?’. Say: ‘here’s something I’m working on. It’s a work in progress. Here are the problems I’m trying to solve, this is the context where these problems live, and this is the feedback I’d like to get’. And then stop and LISTEN.

As a design lead, I actually try my best to train my team on how to present their work and learn how to receive feedback. I want them to avoid falling in the trap of the ‘publicist’: doing this big design ‘reveal’, expecting to ‘wow’ people with something pretty. Being a designer is not about impressing people, it’s about solving problems.

I’d love to learn more about the design team here, and how ‘product’ and ‘design’ collaborate.

At Monzo, we now have 4 product teams: Growth, Retention, Lending and Partnerships. Each team has their own Product Manager, Front-End and Back-end Engineers, but they don’t have a dedicated designer. Instead, they have an assigned ‘Design Rep’, who acts as the point of contact between that team and the design team. They go to their standup, retros, meetings but aren’t necessarily the ones designing what that team needs. One day, they might design something for that team, but the other they will brief another designer to do the work. This ensures a good consistency in the design, and build out a great culture in the design team. We have regular design reviews sessions with all the designers. We share what we’re working on and what we need help with.


Now, let’s chat about your work habits. Do you have any hacks, anything you do to be more productive?

A few months ago I got this great advice from Tom Read, Chief Digital Officer of the Ministry of Justice. If you don’t know this tip you’re going to love it for life: "Add some color to your calendar! Use one color for the things you need and want to do, the things that are working towards your goals and KPIs. And use another one for the things you’d rather avoid, but have to do. For example, a coffee meeting with a designer I’d like to hire would be blue, but interviewing an engineer would be orange, as it doesn’t directly contribute to my goals as a team lead".

Quickly, this will give you a heat map of how you spend your time. At some point last year, as the company and my team were going, I realised my calendar didn’t have any gaps, it was just full of meetings one after another. I started using this technique and realised only 20% of my day was spent on valuable activities. Visualising this is really important, It lets you say no to things more easily. Now my calendar is almost all blue! (NB: he showed me, and it is!).

A snapshot of Hugo’s colour coded calendar.

What tools can’t you live without as a designer?

Anything to scribble, really. I usually go around with a metallic clipboard and a nice mechanical pencil (just because I like how they feel in my hands and they give me the look of a badass designer that knows what is doing) but any piece of paper and pen are good enough. I also sketch a lot on iPad with the Apple Pencil… wink wink <a href="http://thoughts.ink/" target="_blank">Thoughts</a>. A lot of my design has to do with writing so I usually go for Notes or <a href="https://ia.net/writer/" target="_blank">iA Writer</a>. Did I mention <a href="https://www.sketchapp.com/" target="_blank">Sketch</a> already? I’m too mainstream.

What are some products / apps you recently discovered and loved?

Panels

V for wiki

The New Yorker Today

Castro

Mindnode

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