An Interview with Samantha Davies, Lead User Researcher at Monzo

Explore the future of Research in our new series of interviews, Researchers Spilling Tea, featuring minds from some of the world's leading companies.

How did you get into Research?

Like most people I seem to speak to, via a set of happy coincidences fuelled by a healthy dose of curiosity. I’ve always been passionate about the human element – in a past life I did a Physiotherapy degree before realising that path wasn’t for me.

After a few years of job-hopping, I serendipitously discovered ergonomics and ended up doing a Masters in Ergonomics and HCI at University College London with a view of getting into medical device usability and design.

During the course, I fell in love with tech and the endless possibilities it afforded to solve problems for people at scale. After finishing the Masters, I found a role with a boutique design-research agency which marked the beginning of my career. That was almost ten years ago, I can’t quite believe it.

What does your role entail as Lead User Researcher and what are your key goals?

As Gregg Berstein says, ‘the goal of research is to reduce uncertainty’.

My role is to make sure that everyone at Monzo – not just researchers – have the knowledge, skills and tools they need to bring the customer into the design and build process at the right moments, in a way that’ll solve the right customer problems and support our business.

“I think of my goals in terms of the speed and quality at which the researchers can deliver insight, and the impact that has on the decisions we’re making in the product.”

What’s the structure of your team like?

Just like the company, it changes every few months.

At the moment, we have a dedicated researcher as the touchpoint for groups of product teams, known as a collective. Each collective has a different focus to support the business.

Given the speed at which we’re growing, we’re building out a research support function to increase the bandwidth of the researchers and to standardise things like participant recruitment and how we capture and disseminate findings and insight.

“Rather than getting tied-down to a fixed model, we try to be flexible and adapt quickly to do what makes most sense for our customers and other Monzonauts.”

What’s your process like for each new project?

How do you work with the design team?

User Research is part of the design team, or as we call it, the Design Disciplines. At Monzo, design is made up of three disciplines: Product Design, Visual Design and User Research.

Every product team has at least one product designer, and user researchers work closely with them and everyone else in the product teams – they sit together. We also share rituals across all of the design disciplines, like our socials and design critiques.

How does research impact the product you’re building?

Research helps determine the direction we’re going – what problems we want to solve next – and how we go about solving those. To give you an example, our company mission is to “Make Money Work For Everyone”, but not everyone is exactly the same in how they think about or behave with their money.

So, right now we’re running a piece of exploratory work to understand the financial needs of different groups of people which will give us a more nuanced understanding of their lives and where our current experience is lacking for them. The insight will allow us to be more targeted in our efforts and inform the next set of features that Monzo will build, depending on what problems we want to tackle first.

Research also gets involved later in the process to do as what I see as “de-risking” a solution. Once we’ve designed or built a prototype of a feature or a flow, we can run evaluative research to shine a light on things we might not have thought of. The idea is to make the solution more usable and valuable for our customers as well as reducing the risks to the business.

How do you communicate insight to the rest of the business?

I think of it in layers. Each researcher has a responsibility to grow the shared consciousness of their area with everyone else in the company when they build up new knowledge. First to their product teams, then to the design disciplines and the other collectives, then to the rest of the company.

They use the channel that makes most sense depending on the depth and reach that’s needed for the particular audience. We use Notion across the company so it makes sense to document all of our research there as well. Research is communicated face-to-face in debrief sessions, at the various all-hands and via Slack.

What does ResearchOps mean to Monzo?

As Kate Towsey has perfectly articulated, ResearchOps is about providing support and infrastructure to people who do research.

“To us, that means making participant recruitment faster and better for all parties involved. It means making sure we’re compliant with how we store and manage data. It means looking at how research findings are shared across the company and how we surface the right insight at the right time.”

It probably means more – ask us again in a year when we’ve given it a go.

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve overcome working in User Research?

Luckily this hasn’t been the case at Monzo, but it’s common to see companies mistake user research for user testing, and get stuck doing nothing but that. There seems to be a maturity model whereby companies start with no user research at all, then move onto doing usability testing. Many stay there and the fortunate ones break into the world where generative or exploratory research also happens.

Any advice on best practice when testing with users?

Focus on what people do, not what they say. Try to recreate the final conditions of use as closely as possible to what users would actually be experiencing. It makes me sad when I see testing that could’ve been done differently begin with the moderator saying to the participant “Imagine that…”.

As researchers, we learn early on not to ask about future behaviours during exploratory work, yet we sometimes do it in lab sessions when there might be an alternative way of getting the findings. Sometimes, that means launching something imperfect and getting feedback on it early, and we should be ok with that. You don’t need to test everything and sometimes testing isn’t the best approach.

Where do you go for inspiration or support in your field?

I’ve built up a network of peers who are in similar companies and are facing or have faced similar challenges to me. Some of the most useful advice I’ve received has been from people who are a few years ahead. Their experiences are still fresh so they can relate to mine, and I can see they’ve come out the other end unscathed so it gives me hope!

“Building a network of peers is invaluable – it gives you perspective, forces you to reflect and articulate your thoughts in a coherent way, allows you to learn faster and to give back to the very community you’re part of.”

Whats the best advice you’ve ever received? And the worst?

Anything you’re watching on Netflix right now?

I’m developing a mild obsession with true crime series. As a teenager I temporarily considered criminology and law as a career path. I’m yet to watch the second series of Making a Murderer, which I hear is even more fascinating than the first.

Who’s work do you admire or follow?

Whitney Quesenbery for her approach to inclusivity and tireless efforts to reach the most marginalised. Erika hall for her pragmatic, bold, no-BS style. Leisa Reichelt for pioneering research in government and her work now at Atlassian.

What do you see for the future of research?

A quick scan of the jobs boards would suggest that more and more companies are building their capabilities in-house. Companies that invest in it will produce better products that people enjoy using more, whilst all the others sit around wasting time debating how you measure its value. I see the future of research being intricately tied to that of design. Companies that recognise its value will produce better products that people enjoy using more, whilst all the others sit around wasting time debating how you measure its value.

Writing for Marvel. Writing for fun. Eating everywhere, all the time.

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