Future Leaders: Jonathon Milnes, Product Designer
‘Future Leaders’ is a series of blog posts by the Financial Times in which we interview our team members and ask them how they got into technology, what they are working on and what they want to do in the future. Everyone has a different perspective, story and experience to share. This series will feature colleagues working in our Product & Technology teams. You can also connect with us on Twitter at @lifeatFT.
Hi Jonathon, what is your current role at the FT and what do you spend most of your time doing at work? I am a Product Designer on the FT’s Customer Products, working on FT.com. Currently I’m sat between two different teams, so I’m working on ‘Enterprise Tools’ — which is the way that our B2B customers manage their licence, and I’m slowly transitioning to work on ‘Tailored Experiences’, so I’ll be working on myFT and Topic Tracker and their upcoming features.
As in the main page people will see when they go on myFT? Yeah. We find out what problems our users are having and solving them through design. How we design it shapes how our users interact with Topic Tracker and myFT.
Nice! So, how did you get into product design? My degree at university wasn’t anything to do with design — it was English Literature — but I’ve always had graphic design side projects. At uni I joined the university newspaper as a writer but I wasn’t particularly good at writing and, slowly, became more involved in the art direction of that newspaper. That’s where I began to enjoy both design and newspapers.
When I graduated from university I wanted to carry on doing design and I managed to wangle a few graphic design jobs in publishing companies. One of them, my job before the FT, involved a lot of email design which is quite a niche genre of design. I always knew I wanted to work for a national or an international newspaper and saw there was an email specific job that had come up at the FT so I applied and that is how I got into the FT initially. But I think throughout my first role at the FT I was feeling a bit restricted by email design and I wanted to branch out.
How long had you been designing at that point? Before the FT, for 2 years and then I was designing in marketing, focussing mainly on email, for another 2 years, so four years in total. During that time I was also forming relationships with the UX and Design team in the Product department here at the FT, slowly trying to make my way in!
And then you joined the team! Stepping back a moment, you mentioned doing ‘side projects’ at university, was it more than the newspaper job? It was mainly the newspaper but there’s always been side projects that I’ve done. I’ve done work for a few international development companies and NGOs, designing logos, emails, landing pages, or with general art direction. I’ve done other bits as well, like helping Luke, another designer in my team, with his project he does with Accent Magazine which is a queer magazine. There’s always been a few bits in the background. I think as a designer you always get asked by other people for some help with things. My Mum and Dad run a music festival and for the past four years I’ve had to help them with that so there’s always something on the side!
That’s cool! So, what’s the project you’ve worked on at the FT which you’re most proud of? I’ve only been in my current role for three or four months now so the projects I am working on now are still In their early days. The last project I did in marketing was pretty rewarding. It was a joint project between the Product and Marketing teams that aimed to onboard trialists with a goal of increasing the conversion rate of trialists to full subscribers. It was good because there was real collaboration between Product and Marketing. We were using Envoy, an event based messaging capability built by the Internal Products team, for the first time properly which was challenging at times but really fun to work with. We were able to design an on-site and offsite journey that spoke to each other and each user would have a different experience depending on how they were using the FT. There’s a lot of development and iteration happening on it but the process of getting it completed and live was really rewarding.
Do you think it was more a technical success or a well managed project? I think it was generally a step in the right direction in terms of the way that we do marketing to our customers. We were all building it from the ground up ourselves, so we weren’t relying on third party technologies which felt good. From a design perspective, I never really like any of the designs I do. In the moment I don’t mind them but over time I look back and think they all look pretty bad. I felt the designs were fine but it was more the way the team worked and how we were harnessing this new technology and trying to work in a new way. I think the results have been mixed, which is fine, we can learn, and there were some positive results from it. But in general it was a good project to work on. At the FT, sometimes people say it can be siloed and this felt like a good effort for people to work together across different departments.
Off the back of that last question, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in recent years? I think to listen as much as possible. The previous companies I’ve worked in have been a lot smaller and I’ve often been the sole designer or part of a very small team of designers. At the FT, I can sit back and listen to loads of people that have amazing experience from loads of different places that have done or do things that I want to do. I worked with Olga Shevchenko, a senior UX designer at the FT, quite early on when I first joined the FT on a couple of projects and I thought what she does is the kind of work I wanted to do. I think through listening and keeping in close conversation with her and people like her has helped me become a product designer. I’d say listening a lot and asking questions is something I’ve learned to do.
Sounds like very solid advice. So, finally, what would you like to do in the future? This question was actually asked when I interviewed for my current job and my answer then still sticks now I think. I feel like for the last three years I’ve been doing a discipline of design that I enjoyed but always with my eyes looking to this kind of design that I’m doing now. I want to just focus on mastering that a bit more because I’ve always dabbled in it but I’ve never had the opportunity to full blown do it first hand.
Is there a particular technique? Within product design, it’s a UX/UI hybrid I guess. I want to focus on mastering the discipline a little more. In my other roles before I haven’t had the same level of resource in design research that I can have with the research team here so I really want to harness that and learn the process of UX and UI design. I feel like I know it theoretically but I want to apply it to a few really good projects. In design it seems there are two routes you can go down — there’s pure design and then there’s designing for a bit before you can manage people and go into creative direction. I think, at least for now, I’m still in the stage of needing to focus on designing and becoming good at it myself. I can’t see myself becoming a people manager but maybe it could happen eventually.
Fair enough, it sounds like you’re just getting really stuck into design right now! Yeah, I think also because I didn’t do a degree in it — not in any design discipline — I’ve felt a bit like a ‘fake’ I guess.
Like ‘imposter syndrome’? Probably, that’s what people would call it. I’ve just felt like I’ve always been looking around at how to do things rather than actually knowing that from an academic perspective myself. I’m conscious of that and now I feel like I can bridge that gap.
Cool, yeah, you don’t necessarily need a degree in design to be a designer.. Yeah, it’s difficult as well because there aren’t that many degrees going in the field that I work in.
It changes a lot too, right? Yes, exactly, you have graphic designers who wanted to be known as web designers and then the web designers decided they wanted to be UI designers and then UX design came in as the trendy thing and now everyone is saying they’re product designers so it does shift and change.
But you’re happy as you are? Yes.
Great, thank you!
Interviewee: Jonathon Milnes Interviewer: Georgina Murray