Seven things I learnt scaling research (and design) at Monzo

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Three years ago, I joined Monzo as the first user researcher in the Design team. We were just five people and autonomous product squads hadn’t yet been formed. There were about 120 people in the whole company and we had around 400k customers on a prepaid card. It felt like being on a roller coaster rolling out of the station and picking up speed. A few weeks later, we started migrating all our customers to the banking app we’d just built, unlocked a new round of investor funding and hit hypergrowth. At our peak, we were on-boarding between 40-50 new people a week. The roller coaster was at full throttle.  

Since then, we re-architected the fundamental structure and the navigation of the app, created a savings accounts marketplace, offered overdrafts, loans, an energy switching service and the ability to get paid your salary a day early. We built Joint Accounts, Business Accounts, launched two Paid-For propositions, and entered the US. We also built most of our internal tooling, including the customer support and payments platforms amongst others. We grew exponentially, peaking at about 1500 people with 25 in Design – including 6 researchers and a single hero in a  Research Ops role. What a wild ride it’s been, and it’s not over yet. Here are some of the things I’ve learnt along the way. 

1. Educating other teams and people about the role of Research & Design is an important and ongoing part of your role.

It surprised me how many people hadn’t worked with researchers or designers before Monzo. Or perhaps they had, but the way they’d done so previously was different. Setting expectations and helping your peers understand how you can create value is something you have to continuously do. The more proactive you are at doing this, the better. If you don’t explicitly define your role, others will make assumptions about what you do and how to engage with you – or not.

Screenshot of a YouTube video from September 2020 showing Samantha presenting how her team works to the whole company at an All Hands meeting

Screenshot of Research presenting a segment at the company All-hands, explaining more about who we are and how we work.

2. Getting executive buy-in is crucial.

The most senior Design and Research representative in an organisation needs to continuously champion the work the team is doing and help the business leverage our unique skill set. That person needs to have a deep understanding of Design and Research as tools within the context of the business to be able to do that. Without a strong representative and sponsor, the team’s value risks being misunderstood or worse, become invisible. The team should help give visibility to their sponsor of the great work that’s happening, so they can be better champions.

3. Documenting timeless insight to a high standard is worth the time investment.

Good quality documentation of valuable timeless insight is referred to and shared time and time again. Find the medium and channel that works for your company and invest in it – it might be slide decks, written reports, illustrated storyboards, summary videos, or something entirely different. It can be tempting to skip over creating documentation at the time decisions are made because things move fast, but don’t fall into that trap. It ends up hurting you in the long-run. Visual or written documentation creates a source of truth which people can align around and come back to, to reset. It can create momentum and galvanise teams. If it’s well executed and high value, it can become part of your team’s new joiners’ onboarding.

Screenshot of the User Research space in Monzo's internally documentation, where the team share key research

Screenshot of Borrowing-related research documentation, supported by Greig Cranfield.

4. Spending time with your colleagues talking about research insights becomes more important the bigger you grow.

And that’s because there are more people who might find the insights useful, and it’s easier for people to miss out the larger the group becomes. Contextualising research findings so your peers understand how it applies to them is one of the most powerful ways to influence change. It’s the first step in bringing people along the journey with you and going in the same direction. As the company grows, researchers should spend almost as much time documenting and putting it in front of the necessary people as they spend doing the research itself. 

5. To have impact, focus on outcomes, not individual artefacts or responsibilities.

Avoid defining your role by your deliverables. Instead focus on your team and company goals, and what you need to do to make progress towards those. This might mean flexing the shape of your role. As a researcher or designer, you might need to take on what you deem Product responsibilities at times to move the team forward, depending on who else you’re working with. There is natural overlap between the skill sets, especially during the early, problem-definition stage.

As a researcher, you might need to organise a Design Sprint if you can see it’s the right time to. As a designer, you should have a strong view of what the roadmap should look like. View these moments as opportunities to lead, and in doing so build trust and relationships that will enable you to have more impact in the long-run. Take ownership for the progress and outputs of your team, rather than passively waiting to do just your part.

Illustration of many people putting a puzzle together each holding a piece

6. Designing a mass-market financial product that is deeply useful and personal for every customer is challenging.

That’s because money and finances are incredibly individual. The typical place to start with innovation is by solving the problems that you hear the most – the ones most people have. Once you’ve tackled those, the next step is to understand the more nuanced needs of particular groups of people. Deciding how to prioritise between those whilst maintaining a coherent product experience can be difficult, especially when people’s needs are so different. You have to be very clear who you’re designing for and why they’re a priority.

7. Designing to meet a need isn’t always enough.

I’ve met many designers and researchers who believe that meeting a user need means guaranteed success. Create a delightful experience and users will rush in their droves. But meeting a need is only half the battle won. Even if you’ve designed something that meets the needs better for someone than an existing solution, they have to recognise it and want to change their existing habits.

And changing habits is really, really hard – even for someone who desperately wants to. Someone might be able to see the value you’ve created, but making a change might not be worth the mental effort involved. Success comes from so many more factors than just great design and it can take a long time for all the pieces to come together.

An illustration of four people of different ages, races, and genders smiling and waving

Some learnings you might find useful if you’re scaling.

In the space of 3 years, I’ve learnt more than I could’ve hoped for, even if it was hard to appreciate at times. I’ve had the chance of working with some of the brightest, most ambitious, passionate and caring people I’ve crossed paths with. I learnt many more lessons from scaling outside of Design and Research – please get in touch if you found these useful and would like to hear more. 

We’re hiring! Come join us if you’d like to be part of the team. 

If you enjoyed reading this post and you’d like to tackle some of the biggest challenges in the industry, whilst being part of a tight-knit, supportive team – we’re hiring seasoned product designers and researchers