Hi Will! Tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you, and what are you working on?
I’m Will Thomas, I'm the Head of Design at Nested. Since being at Nested I've worked on all sorts of projects, including a complete rebrand with a fantastic studio called Point Studio. I've completely redesigned the product, and designed the design recruitment process at Nested. It's been a lot of fun! Prior to Nested, I was Lead Designer at MyBuilder which is a marketplace for tradespeople. Before that I worked freelance, and that's where I cut my teeth as a designer.
How did you get into product design?
I was doing an Art D Tech course at college which covered a little bit of everything - sculpture, fashion, digital, and I was enjoying it, but not quite getting a sense of where I’d want to focus. Alongside that I was making my own video games. Nothing fancy, just like rudimentary games. My lecturer caught on to this and told me to look at another course in Multimedia. The course was similar to what I had been studying in the sense it covered a bit of everything. But it was more digital focused, and included courses in film, 3D rendering, and web design. It sounded great so I went for that course.
At that time, the web design component was like, Flash, and some basic PHP stuff. But it really drew me in. I got really into web design, and ended up house sharing with some computer scientist friends, which also helped. We started making websites for beer money together. And it sort of all built from there.
Working at Nested disrupting real estate, I imagine 2020 brought some challenges as well as unexpected opportunities. What have been some learnings from the past year?
It was somewhat terrifying during that the first lockdown in the UK, because banks stopped giving out mortgages, and our business model was put on ice completely. That was quite scary! The Product Team, Design and Engineering all kept working throughout so that we could be in the best possible place when mortgages and lending opened back up.
One learning was that home buyers are way more willing to go digital than we ever imagined. We started using a tool called MatterPort to enable virtual viewings. It’s similar to something like Google Streetview, only inside someone's house. We had buyers taking a virtual tour, and putting offers on houses that they'd never even stepped foot inside. They were willing to commit to spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on a house, which would have seemed unimaginable pre-pandemic.
Now we’ve seen how well buyers have accepted these digital tools, it opens up possibilities to leverage them further. Nested is a fairly ops-heavy business with a large team facilitating viewings, so it’s great to be able to alleviate some of that pressure through digital tools to enable virtual viewings.
So yeah, I think that the biggest learning has been that people are ready to go digital, and not only that, it's more convenient for the home buyers as well.
That’s so interesting. Were digital viewings already on your roadmap, or was the integration built as a direct response to COVID?
We were looking at it anyway, because it did represent more convenience for buyers. But the wholesale move of the entire portfolio onto Matterport was in response to COVID.
Virtual viewings have become the default expectation now, whereas before, they would tend to only be used if there was a particularly interesting property that you could use to show off the technology with. It’s gone from being a novelty to being an essential expectation.
What would you say is the most important skill for a design leader to have and why?
Something I’ve realised as I've made the transition from being an individual contributor to a leader is the importance of being able to help other people solve problems. I really love solving problems. And as I've progressed, I've realised it's even more rewarding to help and enable other people to solve problems.
I can imagine a younger version of me being daunted by the idea of someone in my team coming back with something better than I could have made. But humility comes with confidence, and with a long time spent in a given industry.
Now I find it exciting to be able to teach someone something, then see them go on to make something that is, hopefully much better than anything you might have made. That's definitely the most satisfying part of being a leader for me. Seeing someone come to you with a problem, pointing them in the right direction, and then seeing them come back the next week with a solution that knocks you out of the park. I find that super exciting and super fun.
That ability to bring people with you, rather than try and be the best or get ahead is really important in design leadership.
What are the parts of your role that you really love? Talk us through the best parts of your week.
Something we’ve brought in recently is involving customers in early iterations of our design work. It’s great because it’s made our product workflow a lot more customer focussed, and I also really enjoy the conversations with customers.
We’ve used Zapier to automatically invite some account holders each week to a conversation with the product team. We’ll speak to 4-5 customers each week, and show them whatever we’ve been working on that week. We talk them through it and get their thoughts. It’s meant we’ve started developing these really fast iteration cycles. We sometimes have 15 to 30 minutes between each call, so we can sometimes be improving things between interviews, making these really fast changes. Seeing the responses from customers improve from call to call, improving problems going away in a tight iteration cycle is massively satisfying.
Obviously, we have a full week of design thinking leading up to the customer interviews, but it’s a really nice payoff sharing those designs with customers every week. It’s also a good opportunity to build up empathy with the customer, which I think is important and will pay dividends over time, making you a better designer.
What's been the single biggest challenge of your career so far?
My first day at Nested was pretty wild - I had to decide between two completely different brand directions for Nested on my first day. The team had already been working with an agency to work on these two completely different design directions. The agency pitched us on my first day, showed us these two different new brands. I’d barely seen anything - barely seen my desk! And I was asked which direction we should take the brand. It was a bit intimidating, and a heck of a start to hit the ground running like that, but it was also a super fun process.
That first year was a bit of a roller coaster. Straight after deciding the brand direction we had to jump in and start updating everything to the new brand. And of course, I also had to learn everything about the housing market at the same time. But the team were really supportive and made sure I had the time to get to speak to everyone and get to know everything that I needed to know. There was never any sort of pressure to deliver things faster. It was intense, and a lot of fun.
What advice could you share with other designers looking to become a head of design at a startup or a scale up?
Yeah, that's a good question. For the people I mentor currently, I always advise them to make sure there's room to move up within your organisation. And also to make sure that any new additions that come into the team are complimenting you and making the team and each other stronger, rather than getting in each other's way.
I think it’s important to look for places to work where management wants to bring people up. I once worked with a Head of Engineering who told me when I joined that his job was to make himself redundant by making me as good as him.
Looking for a company that can cultivate that culture is important. And if you do make it to a leadership position, to then pay it forward by bringing people up behind you.
I'm curious to know, do you get any good perks working at Nested?
Nested take really good care of us, especially during the pandemic. Our Head of Workplace LJ has been incredible making sure we all get ergonomic chairs couriered to our houses, making sure we have the right kit. It's the little things too, for example she sent the whole team pancake batter mix ahead of pancake day. We also have a generous share option scheme too, so we all feel like we have skin in the game in terms of the businesses overall success.
How do you use Marvel in your workflow?
We use Marvel at Nested in a couple of different ways. We use the Handoff tool a lot, which makes everything blindingly obvious to the engineering team of exactly how we want something to be built. They've come to rely on it. If I send them a quick design on the fly, they're sometimes ask me to turn it into a Handoff file for them. It makes it really easy to communicate exactly how things are going to work.
We’ve used User Testing quite a bit as well, especially when it was first launched and when they were in beta. We tend to use those more for internal testing. I can send out an email to the whole company and ask them to test the designs. Then I come back a few days later, and there’s loads of great insight from the team.
I usually like to take external people through a prototype over a call rather than send them a link to run a user test. I like being able to ask them what they expect to see. It’s interesting to see how someone uses something organically. But I also like the insight of understanding what they’re thinking while they’re doing it, which I find easier over a call.
With external folks, I’ll usually take stills or screenshots of a design, and get them to talk me through what they think they're seeing, and what they expect will happen when they click on things. Then we keep making little tweaks and changing the words or design until the users nail it every time. I know I have 100% comprehension when every time I do a user test, and I ask what they expect to see in each place, and they always get the right answer.
Sometimes they'll they might say something extra that we don't actually have. And we just add that to the roadmap.
Another approach I use in customer calls is to just talk about the problem space before I even show them anything. That way I get their pure, unfiltered response. A while back we were designing a scheduling tool, where we wanted to know the best way of booking people in for bookings. We thought the way to build this booking system was obvious, but then we started talking to people without showing them anything. And they started talking about how they’d expect it to work, and there were a few really different ideas we wouldn’t have thought of. So I find I can get some really interesting responses just by asking people what they expect before I show them anything at all.
Where do you see design going in the next few years?
There's a lot of talk about what artificial intelligence is going to do. I don't think artificial intelligence is going to replace designers, but I think it's going to make our lives much easier. How exactly it's going to do that I'm not entirely sure. We're already seeing it being used in interesting ways, like trying to figure out how someone might want to align a collection of objects or something, or making it easier to synthesise key insights from a large data set
I think AI will make our lives faster and easier, but I can't imagine it being able to take over the design thinking process. That's such a nuanced, human thing. At Nested we sometimes describe what we do as mining for diamonds, rather than mining for coal, because we have so few customers, but each customer is really high value. With such small data-sets, there's a lot of intuition and gut feel when talking to customers. So much of our research is qualitative rather than quantitative. It's anecdotal. It's talking to people and hearing real stories. AI which AI will be able to smooth out the potholes and get rid of the speed bumps, but designers can't retire just yet - we're still going to be needed for the nuanced design thinking work.
Where do you go to get inspired?
It's harder to get out the house these days, so if I'm really stuck for an idea, I'll go for walks through the woods with my puppy. I live in Waltham Forest so it's really easy for me to get into the woods. That change of setting changes the mode the brain works in. I'll get walking, listen to a podcast, and my brain will just start firing. Sometimes I'm almost annoyed because I realise I've stopped paying attention to the podcast, and I'll have to keep pausing it going back 30 seconds to see what I missed. That's usually a good sign though!
When I was younger, I would spend a lot of time looking at things like Dribble and Behance, but I don’t think that’s good for anyone’s mental health. It doesn't do any favours for imposter syndrome. Now I think just be confident in your own abilities and your experience and apply what you know, to your domain of expertise. The real job is to solve real problems for real people every day. That's what matters.
What can we expect next from you or Nested?
We’re looking at a new product line at the moment that will help more people get their foot on the property ladder. It’s something I'm really excited about, and it's a whole new product, and line of inquiry for Nested. I can't say much more about it at the moment but I'm really excited about the current product direction.
Where can we follow you or keep up to date with your work?
You can follow me on Twitter. I’m @juptrking there and on Dribble too. The handle is named after the third boss from the third Metal Slug game. This is like a really deep cut that no one wants to hear about 😹. The other thing I’m working on is a Nested Product blog, so that’s another thing to look out for.
That sounds really good, we’ll definitely look out for that! Thanks very much Will for taking the time to chat, it’s been really interesting hearing what you’re working on and your thoughts on Design ✨