Design & Software with Laurie Nicholas.
In the 12th Episode of the Make Things Better Podcast, we were joined by the wonderful Laurie Nicholas from Mina.
- Laurie Nicholas
- 17 mins
Tom: Hello and welcome to episode twelve of the Make Things Better podcast.
Today, I have Laurie Nicholas from Mina, head of product and also user experience, and I'm quite excited to talk to you Laurie a little bit about design and how that insects with software development and the skills in both design and software development.
So first of all, thanks for coming on the show. How are you doing today?
Laurie: Really good thanks, thanks for having me Tom.
Tom: Cheers for coming on, do you want to just tell us briefly about what you've been up to over the last few years? And also what Mina in Sheffield do as well?
Laurie: Yeah, yeah, sure. So as you mentioned, I'm currently serving as head of product and user experience.
Yeah, I've always been like a bit of a software all rounder like a bit of a generalist kind of just if it's software, I can kind of slot into most teams, but with a real kind of focus on design and development, essentially. And recently, that has sort of transitioned over into the product side. I think a lot of that is by the virtue of the fact that I've spent quite a lot of my career kind of agency side.
I've spent a long time kind of solving various kind of business problems without necessarily having a single product over it, whereas in-house you do have those recognized product functions.
So I work at Mina and we are a startup focused on making paying for electric vehicle charging radically simple is how we put it. So our core product is something called Home charge, the target customers for home charge is fleets. So fleets, historically, that's a business with a number of vehicles typically in a fuel world. Those vehicles have historically been petrol and diesel. Anybody that drives one of those vehicles as a job, has a fuel card, they can go to any fuel station just use the card and fill up the vehicle. With the switch over to EVs, which is the acronym I'll use now, standing for electric vehicles. With the switch over to EV's the way in which you put energy into an EV is quite different.
The main thing being how long it takes to do it requires a kind of shift in terms of your mental model of how best to optimize what the car is doing at any one point with a kind of traditional sort of fossil fuel powered vehicle it can rock up to any station fill it up in two minutes.
Whereas to get the same result on an EV, you're looking at at least an hour. And it might not get you as far. So quite simply, the best way to charge an EV is when it would be parked anyway for a lot of people that would be on their driveway at home overnight. So I mentioned the drivers of fleets having a fuel card before so now the best way for them to charge their vehicle is on their driveway at home overnight.
Therein lies the problem of how does the business pay for that charge?
So we've come up with a solution where we pay the energy supplier directly. So we integrate some of the various bits of technology to integrate with both the charge point itself and then the driver's energy supplier in order to measure the amount of energy going into the car and then paying the energy supplier directly. This has kind of numerous benefits in terms of in terms of VAT implications for one because there's like a 5% domestic energy VAT that is reclaimable by the business.
And then the other is bill shock because you start charging an electric vehicle from home the cost of that, you may not feel for a while. And if you're anything like me and you've got some meter that they can't read for whatever reason and you can't be bothered to submit your reading for 6 months then you might be getting a payroll report and getting reimbursed, spending that money every month.
And then six months later, you suddenly get a whacking great kind of thousand pound bill that yeah, that obviously you feel that the business should pay for they feel like they've already paid for.
So our solution kind of takes that completely away Co-founded by Ashley Tate, Chris Dalrymple and Andrew Gunn Ash Tate recently exited another business from Sheffield called Split The Bills. So that was splitting household student utility bills. So a lot of what we're doing is built off the foundations, those relationships and the knowledge that he has about working with energy suppliers in the UK
Tom: So in your job as well I'm guessing a large part is, well I don't know... How much in your job are you involved in maybe the software development and design of the dashboards and that kind of thing, that the businesses will view and that individuals can view to see how much they're paying for electricity, is that part of your job?
Laurie: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
Tom: Yeah, I thought so. I kind of guessed it might be because I had a look at those dashboards on the Mina website, and I thought they looked really good. And I'm quite interested to find out like do you find it easier to create designs because of your software development skill?
Laurie: I think the answer to that can be yes and no. So I think knowing the technical limitations of your medium, if you're doing any sort of design work, knowing the technical limitations always, always helps you sort of know where those boundaries are and help you avoid coming up with some hairbrain scheme that can't be delivered. So for instance, like it's much like designing a car or a computer or anything or a phone, you can come up with some amazing sort of like exterior design.
But like I couldn't design a car or a phone, I feel like I could probably come up with, I'd have my own taste and aesthetics and come up with something that looks alright, but I don't know the full kind of the, you know, the compromises that you need to make, a car's job is usually about punching a hole through the air, in order to get where you need to go. That's like it's main job.
So like those sort of design foundations, makes sure it can do the job it needs to do before you think about aesthetics. So knowing the technical limitations is always, always going to help you as a designer. On the other side,the other thing that it can do is make you think about implementation a little bit too early, so you risk. If you're kind of too close to the metal as it were maybe you'll sort of like risk leading with the left hemisphere of your brain a little bit and you're sort of thinking about implementation when really that's the wrong phase.
It takes a certain mental discipline to sort of have to turn bits on and off. No I'm not going to think about, but let's just think about what's possible. And that often comes down to in terms of design foundations, it should be focused on the human. What is the design for? Who is trying to do what? And that's that's sort of what you should be starting with and not getting so far ahead with how it should be implemented. That is one of the one of the risks, I suppose. I think having any sort of design, technology crossover is quite similar to quite similiar to music.
In terms of the fact that it's highly logical. But also, sort of highly kind of creative as well. There's those two things coming together.
Tom: Yeah, and you mentioned there like kind of parts of the brain that are maybe responsible for different parts when it comes to the design or software skills. How similiar do you think software skills and design are? And is there much difference in terms of kind of the brain and what's used to kind of think about different problems, solutions or the creativity side of things?
Laurie: Yeah, yeah.
I mean, I don't know how true any of it is, but it's one of those things that's spoke about a lot obviously you've got like I've probably got the hemispheres the wrong way around.
You've got your left brain responsible for sort of logical problem solving. And then right is all about kind of artistry and creativity and all the rest. And I definitely think there's two, there are two sides to everything. But I think I do think that both design and software development use both of those skills independently. And that's come a long way, I think.
So when I was working with agencies ten years ago, like creative was almost seen as like, 'Oh, that's the design team, the design team are the creatives, they're the only creative people.' And this is absolutely rubbish. It's absolutely not like that. And I feel like we're much better placed now in terms of the software development industry in recognizing, well, first of all, I think making sure that you have developers involved early in any sort of creative processes like that's hugely that's usually part of making sure that projects delivered successfully.
But just in terms of recognizing that software development even if it's like coding or system design or something. These are creative disciplines. It's not just it's not some sort of like massive thing where you have to have that creative side of your brain. It's not all kind of totally logical. In terms of the similarities. So in software, you've got foundational functional level stuff. So that might be your architecture or your system stuff.
But then you also have like Code aesthetics you know like how a very particular sort of syntax looks. And that's something where teams generally have to sort some sort of agreement. Similarly, in the design side, you've got your overall sort of structural user journey.
Does the visual hierarchy make sense? A designers like number one job is to communicate all of that stuff and then you've got the kind of okay does it look really nice? Does it kind of get people in through the door? Do people look at it and go 'wow yeah, that looks great'.
I mean, a lot of that is it's not just a lick of paint, it's clear visual hierarchy. And knowing what's important and being able to easily identify elements, and intuitively know what to do where in an interface.
Tom: Yeah, yeah, you definitely need some skills from both really don't you. I don't think I fully appreciated that. Until I kind of got into understanding all of this a little bit more. I think as like an outsider. You kind of do see them as two separate things, a little bit more than when you start to talk to people more frequently about design and software skills.
Is there anything like software developers could learn from designers?
Laurie: So I would say not worrying about what is possible kind of too early.
I think if you were to look at kind of your more blue sky thinking and I guess I am thinking more idea based design as opposed to what you might think of like service design thinking more kind of like, you know, like more abstract. So I think just just trying to keep an open mind without, because sometimes you come to something and go, 'Oh no, there's no way we can deliver that' but actually just by going through that process of creative thought, you can get to something else, which is better than where you would have got to if you had have immediately thought 'we're only going to do what's possible'.
You might go through that journey and realize the potential of something and then find even though some things aren't possible It leads to paths which are. And I think the other thing that you can maybe learn from, and I don't know if it's so much of a design thing it may be more of a product thing but a lot of it does come through from the design elements is that you want to design and build things that people use and this probably applies to design just as much as development but you can put as much effort as you want into something looking amazing or some sort of amazing, scalable technical solution or anything like that.
But it doesn't really matter if nobody is going to use it. You have to build in iterations and sort of prove demand and make sure that you're getting feedback early and often and that the people who are going to use the thing are involved in every stage of the process. And are spoken to on a weekly basis, I would hope.
Tom: Yeah. That makes sense and is there anything that designers could learn from software developers?
Laurie: So I think software developers often think about scalability early which I find sometimes designers don't necessarily do that. Which I guess is almost contradictory to the answer I gave last time, but I do think that design is thinking about scalability early and should definitely be of higher concern than often it is. For instance, at Mina we've got fleets varying from sort of a one man band to a company that's got five cars. It's very small. Everybody knows each other, to huge fleets of thousands of drivers in which fleet management is a proper job.
Designing something for that first group that then scales to a second can be quite daunting. But really, it's about it doesn't necessarily mean that you have to design that first one, but it's making sure that you've got the foundations in place so that once you reach scale that you can deal with that. So again, coming back to what I was talking about before. I think talking about like structure and hierarchy being more important than aesthetics. And so I think one of the things that developers know is that you spend a lot more time reading code in order to maintain it then you do writing new code.
So making sure that the stuff you're writing is and as well that's not just you that's working in a team as well. You're writing code that other people are going to have to read and go, 'Oh, right, I know how to change this without breaking anything.' You'd hope you've got tests in place to cover that as well. But I think designers can learn a lot from that in terms of making sure that what they're designing in terms of communicating can be extended upon in future. So they're trying to communicate a message.
But what if that changes?
How are we going to evolve it and making sure that you've got clear sort of structural foundations in place?
Tom: Yeah. So I don't know if I'm interpreting this correctly, but is there something there about designers considering how the code could maybe be adopted and changed in the future based on the design changing as well?
Laurie: I wouldn't say necessarily thinking about the design. I think there's definitely you see a lot more these days, people coming up with like rather than just everything being built from scratch. Designers might have like a design system, so like a component library, like this is what a button looks like or this is what a user menu looks like.
And developing one of these, so we have one at Mina it's called Latina UI and it's essentially building blocks like a box of Lego bricks, for user interfaces. And so I think that is that's part of it in terms of being able to scale stuff.
I think what it was trying to get to is more about sort of the designer's key job, which is communicating information is making sure that the person that's looking at the screen knows what does what. They know what's more important than something else. If they think they need to do something but aren't sure where to find it then there is a sort of breadcrumb trail to sort of lead them in the right direction and you can hopefully end up with it being intuitive.
And in terms of how that information is structured and having a good foundation there as opposed to just sticking it all on a screen will generally make kind of thinking right we're going to have a menu here, we might only have one thing in it but I know that on the roadmap, we've got like three more things coming in it so making sure that that's extensible is a really key part. And knowing how it's going to evolve enables you to do the sort of the slightly cliched, I guess, the Spotify agile sort of skateboards to scooter to car diagram, in terms of like customer happiness at every sort of stage of product delivery, thinking about that from design, but not just in terms of technical stuff.
Tom: Okay, yeah that makes a lot of sense actually.
So my final question Laurie and this is a very broad question but what can people do to make things better?
Laurie: Super super cheesy but I will go back to Bill & Ted on this one. So yeah be excellent to each other and party on dudes
Tom: Good quote that, thanks for coming on where can people find you and Mina?
Laurie Our main social channels are Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram.
Twitter: @EV_Mina LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/mina-ev/ Instagram: mina_ltd
And if anybody is looking for a solution for not just home charging, but public and workplace charging or home charging installations, businesses, come and give us a shout.
Tom: Cheers Laurie, I hope everyone has enjoyed today's episode and I hope you have a great rest of your day.
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