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The Importance of Design within GoCardless – Q&A Session with Sam Willis

We recently published our Digital Salary Survey for 2016 that showed an increase in permanent salaries within the industry, predominantly within the financial sector. We put this down to the surge in Fintechs hiring over the year and pushing up the salaries to be competitive with the likes of FTSE 100 companies.

One of the best examples of a successful Fintech is GoCardless, the direct debit recurring payments system. I met with Sam Willis (Twitter), Product Designer at GoCardless, to find out how the design team have played their part in the company’s incredible 450% growth over the last two years.

Hi Sam, when did it all begin for you at GoCardless? 

I’ve been at GoCardless for 18 months. I joined at a really exciting time when the team were in the middle of redesigning the dashboard that would cater for SMEs and large enterprises alike.

I’ve been lucky to join the start-up during a period of fast growth, and we secured our second round of funding, raising £9.1 million earlier this year (Source: Business Insider)

Can you give an overview of what GoCardless do?

GoCardless’ mantra is to provide a global recurring payments system for the digital age. Our technology allows businesses to easily process direct debit payments online in the UK and Europe, with other territories being added soon.

What benefits are there to using GoCardless instead of other direct debit methods?

Direct Debit is a slow and antiquated system that was built in the 1970’s and very little innovation has taken place since then. We have applied a layer of technology over the top of Direct Debit, allowing any business quick access to a system that is easy to use. We have built a Direct Debit system that is fit for the modern, digital company.

As a Product Designer at GoCardless, what are your main responsibilities within the design team?

There are three main products that I’ve been working on:

1 -The marketing site

2 – The dashboard our merchants use to manage payments

and 3 – Our admin app that our operations team use to manage merchants and prevent fraud.

Myself and James Shedden (also a Product Designer) could be described as generalists as we tend to work across every product within the business. There are opportunities to work on b2b and b2c facing projects as we also build payment pages that our merchants use to sign up their customers.

A big part of my role is ensuring that both the users’ needs and business needs are adhered to. This requires lots of workshops, and stakeholder meetings as well as working closely with the devs and constantly iterating.

Can you describe your work process on a typical project?

A typical project begins by conducting user research, combining quantitative and qualitative methods, desk research and a competitor analysis.

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I gather business requirements through workshops with employees from operations and sales, then work closely with the Product Manager to prioritise new features and set a roadmap.

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I like to use affinity mapping to pull out key quotes from the research findings and to identify key pain points. We have a great space in the office to cover the whiteboards in post-it notes for this.

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I’ll sketch ideas, user flows, wire frames and start usability tests to talk through the product flow and ideas. We share work using Dropbox Paper which allows for collaboration if people are working out of the office.


I use this simple equation for every project:

A Shorthand for Designing UI flows

How does the design team work within the company?

Working in a version of Agile that works best for our setup, we work with ‘Themes’ that are three-month design phases focusing on a certain aspect of the business. We are coming to the end of the ‘Activation’ theme, which looks at our customers’ first experience with the platform. We’ve been conducting lots of user research and testing to improve the whole customer experience when they first interact with us.

We have daily stand ups and retrospective meetings after each theme which has been working really well.

What have been the main challenges when designing products at GoCardless?

Direct debit in itself is very complex as there is a lot of compliance involved and the payments system behind it is complex in that it moves between bank to bank. We have to simplify the product so that it’s easy to use while also communicating and educating our customers on how the process of direct debit works.

Talk me through the work culture at GC & the part it plays in design. 

I think the work culture at GC has been instrumental to the success of the company. The design team are supported with conference and training budgets and days off to allow for continued training. For example, we saved up our yearly allowance to go to a 3-day conference in New York last year called Point Oh and we went to the Jam event on ‘Sharing the Stories behind great Products’ in London on 4th November.

When I first started, we had an in-depth meeting with the company CEO Hiroki, who talked about the philosophy behind the company and this gives you a great understanding and appreciation of the company from day one. There is a flat work structure, flexible working hours and amazing open plan offices with lots of space for collaborative working. We have a regular design breakfast, design evening out and a companywide early finish on Friday so we get to know each other really well which helps too.

What are the benefits of working for a start up like GC?

I think the work culture and flexible working with a focus on output has really helped our creativity within the design team. We are constantly faced with new and exciting challenges, so no two days are the same. I have also had great mentors within the business, including Tom Petty who taught me a lot and has helped me to progress.

What do you look for when hiring for the team?

·       A Designer with experience of working on a product from start to finish

·       Evidence of strong visual design skills

·       Great communication skills as the role requires a lot of collaborative working, facilitating workshops and of course meeting with clients and customer across all levels

·       Autonomy – they must be proactive and organised

·       Persuasion – they need stakeholder management skills, ability to justify designs & choices with supporting data/research etc.

·       Someone who’s done their research on GC – they know about the product, understand how direct debit works, its capabilities and benefits and be prepared to talk about what skills they can bring to the team

You co-founded a really successful meet-up group called Design & Banter. What was the initial idea behind the meetup?

A colleague I had worked with previously, Gearôid O’Rourke, and I set up Design & Banter as we saw the gap in the market for an event that fell in between a meet-up and a conference. It was set up as a free event to engage the design community. It successfully ran for over three years, with two or three speakers per event talking about their expertise and design stories.

I am now involved in co-organising a new event called Design Club, which will be held every other month in London. This event brings together designers of all disciplines and experience for drinks and talks from leaders in the field. It’s a great space to share your work, discuss your careers and get a different perspective on the industry.

Zebra People would like to say a massive thank you to Sam Willis for giving us insight into the design team at GoCardless. 

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