An Interview with Stanley Wood, Head of UX at Volvo

Get to know Designers from some of the world's leading companies in our new series of interviews, Designers Spilling Tea.

What was the moment you knew you wanted to work in design?

It’s when I was twenty-two in an Internet cafe in Kuala Lumpur. I’d been backpacking around Asia for several months, trying to write a novel, when I arrived at an Internet cafe when Steve Jobs was introducing the first iPhone. It grabbed my attention and shortly after I booked my trip back home to become a product designer. It was really that simple.

How did you get to where you are now?

I gave a talk about this at Leading Design 2017, Before Mastery: Lessons Learned Trying to Master Design Leadership, which shared my journey trying to master design and design leadership.

But in general, I would say I was driven out of curiosity to understand all aspects of design (interaction, visual, strategy), so I could have all the skills and references to make sense of what was, and is still, a new discipline. I accomplished most of this from reading and moving towards opportunities to work with more talented people, which meant I moved from London to Madrid to Stockholm.

Anything you’d do differently?

I don’t think so, as cliche as it sounds it was my failures that helped me moved forward the most.

What did your teachers think of you?

If you mean school teachers, probably a pretty poor student. I didn’t get my academic streak until after my studies, where I learned learning was in fact my favorite thing to do. I think that’s because I struggle with the piecemeal learning approach, needing the big picture first then the details—if that makes any sense.

But if you mean a design teacher, I didn’t really have one outside of books as I’m self taught.

What was the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far?

Creative direction at scale. How do you balance empowering designers across embedded teams while also role modeling what good design looks like within an organization. The obvious answers often don’t get you as far as you need to go in practice, and so beyond getting better and better at storytelling and establish frameworks, it often means you need to lean-in to provide guidance and direction to unblock teams. Getting the balance right is the key and the struggle.

Have you applied design to any other areas of your life?

Everything, from what I wear to how I structure my day to how I organize my notes. I like finding repeatable models that help me focus on new things and ignore repetition.

What makes a day, a good day, for you?

“A healthy balance of input and output. Getting that balance right can be tricky sometimes, but when it works it means I can ensure I have all the necessary context to shape and support all the design output we’re working on.”

What’s it like to work for a big company like Volvo Cars?

Like Spotify before, this is a globally distributed organization meaning your colleagues and teammates work all over the map, from Silicon Valley to Stockholm to Shanghai. This means your tools often become your office.

What frustrates you most about your current design process and how are you trying to change it?

Transparency of work. Design files lost in dropbox or drive, with emails and slack messages requesting access to the latest project update.

We’re now investigating tools to see if they can remove all these barriers and set us up for radical transparency: everyone sees everything and has access to everything.

What’s your creative sign off process like?

First, we have Weekly Design Critiques to stay aligned and calibrated on design problems and approaches. Then we have a design review stage for the work that is ready to scale beyonds the initial sample user base. This is also where our design leads make sure we have updated our design language system.

Biggest learning from managing design teams?

Be deliberate about how you spend your time, you need to both manage the practice of design (hiring, coaching, etc) and drive through a common direction to ensure everything lines up towards something easy, useful and magical for the customer.

“Be deliberate about how you spend your time.”

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

There is never a perfect choice, so don’t lose time and energy looking for one. Instead be deliberate about what you optimise for, and smart about how you mitigate its downsides.

“There is never a perfect choice, so don’t lose time and energy looking for one.”

And the worst?

Care what so-and-so says about you.

Design trends that should die?

Data-driven design where designers forget to have a point-of-view.

Thoughts on the future of design tools?

Some products are addressing a very clear problem: how do I work with other designers in real time who are not sitting next to me. But that can also support education and cross-functional tools. Really valuable.

I’m also looking at tools that support deep work, helping you get into the flow to really solve complicated and meaningful work.

What are you watching on Netflix right now?

Hilda, a beautiful cartoon.

What are you reading/listening to right now?

Who’s work do you follow and admire?

Well these people are all dead, but I still follow them enough for advice and inspiration to believe they are still alive:

According to a few reports, AI is going to be the next emerging market for the design industry, with several companies working on solutions. Do you see any problems that AI could solve or the pros and.

I think it will be challenging for research and insights teams to govern what ML (Machine Learning) and AI do. I fear product teams may cut them out of the loop and rely on algorithms only.

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

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