An Interview with Vuokko Aro, Design Director at Monzo

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

How did you get to where you are now?

I did some freelance and agency work in my native Finland, and that felt small, so I moved to New York City to intern and then work at a startup there. I then met my now wife and moved around a whole ton with her as she interned around the world. I went back and forth between Europe and NYC freelancing and working for startups for a while, but now we’ve settled in London and both been working here for a few years. Along the way I had the privilege of working with some amazing designers and product thinkers who helped me level up.

Anything you’d do differently?

Not really! Each stretch of the road was valuable in its own way. The variety of products, problems and people with different working styles played a big part in my development, I think. If I had to name one thing, I’d say I wish I had taken steps to build up my confidence and public speaking skills earlier on. I’m playing catch-up now.

What did your teachers think of you?

“I was the student who had always done all of their homework plus the extra assignments, mainly because I was so curious and wanted to learn everything possible. That’s my biggest flaw and my biggest strength. I want to learn about and get involved in everything.”

What does a typical day look like to you? And what makes a day, a good day, for you?

Monzo is a hypergrowth startup, so a big part of my day goes towards hiring great new designers, product managers and engineers. I review portfolios and tasks and I interview people, often in a workshop format where we work through a problem together with the candidate. I also do a lot of 1:1s with the people I manage and with people from across our product organisation.

I’m also putting work into building our design team culture and building a design studio where we can design collaboratively and learn from each other. A good day is one where I can spend a lot of time working on design problems together with my team.

How do you handle design to developer handoff?

We have a very cool and detailed way of naming and structuring our Sketch files with the team. We host everything on GitHub, and engineers know exactly where to go to find a particular piece of work. There isn’t a particular point of handoff, though, I’d say. We work in a super collaborative way, and there are many moments during the process where we discuss details with engineers and then go back to adjust designs. It’s a process.

Can you outline the major points of your design process?

Designers at Monzo work embedded in independent product squads that are formed around outcomes, not features. The first thing a squad needs to do is to discover and prioritise what to build in order to try and get to their desired outcomes, and design plays an important role there — together with everyone else, of course.

Once we have that clarity, we get to work and, again together with the squad, frame what the problem is and work through some possible solutions.

“Design is in a unique position to make ideas tangible, and to then lead a discussion on whether the direction is right or not. After that we go back and forth, working our way towards the correct solution together.”

How do you measure the success of your work?

My immediate measure of success is how well the design team that I manage is doing: are they happy? not too stressed? doing meaningful work and making an impact? That last part is the ultimate measure of success for me, and all of us at Monzo.

“We want to make money work for everyone, and we want to fix banking for people everywhere.”

Do you draw inspiration from any other creative field?

Absolutely! I’d say most of my inspiration comes from other creative fields. I love comic books, mechanical watches, cinematography, animation, architecture… I could go on and on. Interesting color palettes, layouts, ways to display information, and ways to surprise and delight are all around us. One of my favourite things to do is to just walk around London looking at everything.

What excites you about the future of Product Design?

Tools for Product Design are improving at a fast pace, which means we’re having to spend less time worrying about pixels, which in turn frees up time to really focus on user problems and solving them in the best possible way, focusing on journeys, flows, and the design details that make it feel special.

How do you incorporate feedback into your designs? What’s a time you received hard criticism for your work?

I like to work out in the open and get feedback as early and often as possible. I’m especially a fan of the 30/60/90% feedback system where you ask for early, mid and late feedback on a project.

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

“No matter what, expect the unexpected. And whenever possible, be the unexpected.”

“Life is too short to waste working with jerks.”

Design trends that should die?

Not the most imaginative answer, but I have to say all those cookie banners, email subscription popups, ads, support bubbles and other layers of cruft that cover 80% of any interface you land on these days, especially on mobile. They completely undermine the user and what they came to the site to do. They put the site’s needs over the user’s.

Agile or waterfall?

Agile! Agile with a mix of studio culture thrown in. I love agile, but the one thing it doesn’t always leave enough space for is imagining possible futures further in the distance. Understanding upcoming problems requires vision, exploration and deconstructing ideas, something that collaborative design studio time on the side can enable.

What are you watching on Netflix right now? What are you reading/listening to right now?

I’ve recently started watching BoJack Horseman. I also love Atlanta and High Maintenance, both because of their original spin on storytelling. I just finished reading the latest trade paperback issue of Saga from Image Comics, and I’m reading A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin and the new biography of Bill Cunningham. And I’m waiting on my pre-order copy of Becoming by Michelle Obama. I’m listening to Cure by Eddy de Pretto and to La Fête est finie by Orelsan, both super nice French artists.

Who’s work do you follow and admire?

Cap Watkins. Cap’s communication skills are unparalleled, and his no BS writing and documentation around design leadership has helped our field mature. I’d also have to say Jon Contino, just because I admire his unique style and his relentless attitude, always staying true to himself.

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