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Interview: Tom Crossman VP of Product at Habito

Livia Thimotheo
Reading Time:
20 minutes

DSC_1735We started the interview checking we had time for photos at the end and discovered that Tom had a secret second job at Habito....

I have until 5pm and then I have to make a move because with our website being a live chat. Everyone in the business takes turns in managing customer services in the evening until 10pm and tonight is my go.

Why do you have to do that?

Because we don't want it to be just customer services' responsibility to talk to the customer. We want everybody to talk to the customers: engineers, marketing, strategy, recruitment, HR, everyone is mandated to talk to customers at least twice a month.

So did you get customer services training?

Yes, it's part of our onboarding. A lot of the time is just guiding them through the website or answering general mortgage related questions.

What happens if you get a technical question you can’t answer?

If we don't know we just admit we don't know and we have channels on Slack with mortgage experts. More often than not someone will be online. If not, we make a point of sending them an email back with the answer to their question. It's very important that someone who's designing advertisements for customers is talking to customers etc. it means we never lose sight of why we're doing what we're doing. We'll take, say, the 10 best questions that we've had and talk about them in our regular cross-functional meetings.


Can you tell me a bit about Habito as a company?

Sure. We've been around since April 2016. We're essentially an online mortgage broker. But we're not a mortgage broker that is looking to use technology, we're primarily a technology-focused company. So we use computers to help our experts and help our team deliver better products and deliver efficiencies in the mortgage journey. We're very strong on building that human connection and it's all about using computers in the right way and using AI in the right way, to help efficiently manage that customer journey. Because mortgages are complex, especially for a first time buyer,  we try to make you feel comfortable. If you go to a bank directly Natwest will never say go to HSBC, it's better [for your situation].

It's very rare you'll find someone that matches the whole of the market. Whereas the technology that we've built means that we can take your customer details and match you up with over 20,000 mortgages from 75+ lenders and give you what we believe is the right one.

What is your role as VP of Product?

At a high level, my responsibilities are to work with all areas of the business to determine what our customer-focused and expert products look and feel like.

So, there are two distinct areas we're working with. We build proprietary technology, the sourcing engine and the admin portals; which is how the experts talk to customers when they're in the journey, which is all back-office facing. My role is working with the operations and expert teams to build a product that is fit for their needs. Working out how we can efficiently take the customers through. How quickly we do KYC (know your customer); how we manage documents; how we surface results from mortgage products to them; how we get them to recommend them; how we automatically fill in an Agreement in Principle on a lender's website; how we get that data back to the customers and show them on the dashboard. That then matches up with the customer experience, which is guiding them through to what is, essentially, a very large form in order for us to get the right details so we can surface those mortgage deals to them.

I work very closely with all areas of the business. I'm working with Customer Services, to get feedback from customers, engineering, obviously, to spec out and design what they're actually building, our experts, to determine what exactly is the priority of the features and request they have. I also manage the engineering products and design team. We have a team of 12 engineers and product and UX designers and it's my role to lead the vision for the products. It's quite encompassing and I work very closely with Will, who's our VP of Engineering. He will look after the code quality and languages that we use and how we build stuff. We will work together to determine the priority of what we build, when we build it and who's going to be building it along with reporting that back to the business.


What would you say is the difference between a UX Designer and a Product Designer?

I come from a UX design background. I started agency-side as UX Designer and worked up to UX Lead. I worked with marketing and communications from Samsung, Redbull, Google, to build advertising campaigns. What UX looked like from that point of view was "how do I get customers to understand about my products, engage with my brand?". "How do I get them to take something away?" Which means they're going to remember what Samsung/Red Bull is. All in a very small and segmented advertising campaign.

Then when I moved over to more product-sides, it was more about understanding customers' life-time value. The product designer is thinking about how to engage a customer. How to continually build something which is growing. If you look at Facebook as a product, it's wildly different now to where it was five years ago, to where it was ten years ago and it's wildly different to where is going to be in five years.

A UX Designer could be focussed on one campaign or website and building a great journey for the customer in one segment. Whereas a Product Designer has to think about the future and think about the roadmap and how that product is used across different devices, environments.

There are a lot of similarities. That's not to say that a UX Designer won't think like that. But a strong Product Designer will be thinking about business and strategy as well.

Let's talk about the rebrand. Habito is a young company, launched in April 2016, what made you decide to rebrand now?

As we grew we've been talking to more and more people, customers in different places, both online and offline. We've been doing TV, tube advertising. Lot's of more traditional, non-digital, communications and advertising. So, we knew our visual identity needed to evolve to allow us to stand out. It was something that was at the very top of our minds. If we're going to be talking to lots of people in lots of different channels, we'll need something that will make them feel it's Habito. We felt it would've been a failure if the TV advertisement didn't look like the website, which didn't look like the advert we put on The Times, on the tube. There was a lot of disparity. So we felt it was the right time to try and consolidate that and bring a more harmonious voice as Habito.

Now we've got a quite good brand toolkit. What you're seeing online is the just the scratch on the surface. We launched the new branding at the start of September and we've got plans now for new product iterations, new advertising, new campaigns that are going to be coming out, which is going to be much more in tune with the new branding. This is really just the start. We felt that if we're building a company that is going to last the next 25 years, at least, when you're working with mortgages, you need to be there for like 30 years. If we want to build a company which resonates for that long period of time, we felt that brand was really important.

What would you say is Habito's biggest challenge in the next 12 months?

We took on 18 and a half million by Atomico. [Habito raised £18.5 million in Series B funding led by Atomico VC]  That puts a lot of pressure on delivering what we say we're going to deliver. In the next 12 months, we are going to have completed the first fully automated end to end mortgage without a human interacting. We're confident in our technology that the AI and the chatbot is giving the right advice. So the challenge is how do we grow that? How do we scale that out? How do we make a lot of mortgages automated? How do we not just do one and say that we've won. How do we make the majority of our mortgages automated is one big challenge.

Other challenges are; How do we grow the team and different functional roles whilst keeping the core culture of our business is going to be a big challenge. How do we move into bigger premises whilst keeping a core Habito feeling about what we're doing? How do we not disrupt the work that we're doing? How do you double an engineering team whilst keeping up the pace of delivery? So, a lot of the business challenges are going to be about scaling: the people but also the technology as well.. Like with any business our size, the challenge is going to be scaling what we do without losing sight of why we're doing it and how we do it cleverly and not losing the ethos of the company.


What are your feelings on the PropTech sector at the moment, especially with the rise of competitors such as Trussle and Burrow?

It's great. One thing is good to know we have kinsmanship with these guys because we are all trying to disrupt the traditional incumbents. All of us are looking at the problem slightly differently. We're all trying to find how we can make this better for the customer. All three companies are looking at it from a very customer-centric point of view, which is great.  Personally, I took this job because it was a challenge. It's a very hard sector.

What do you mean by hard?

Because no one really attacked property and mortgages and a lot of other fintech very well. We're only starting to see big companies come out at fintech in the last few years. You see stuff like Transferwise, Monzo raising 71 million yesterday (7/11/17). It's only the start of Fintech.

If you look at mortgages and PropTech, the amount of third parties involved in mortgages is insane. We work with conveyancers, solicitors, valuation, a hundred different lenders, tons of different people that have to feed in information that allows the customer to get a mortgage on their property. No lenders have an API for filling in an application, so how do we work with them? No solicitors have... Computers, basically. What I mean by hard is that there's no right way of doing it as well.

We don't see Trussle and Burrow as direct competitors because we think that the industry is larger than that. We're not measuring ourselves as to how Trussle or Burrow are doing. We're not worried by that because the opportunity is a lot larger. The opportunity for us to even capture, like, 1% of the mortgage market per year is billions of pounds. I like that other people are looking at these challenges and there's definitely room for three, four new companies to be looking at it.

We’re going see a lot of fintech, proptech, instech [companies] partnering with each other to build up working relationships where together they'll be as powerful as incumbents such as Santander, Nationwide, Haliax etc.

We're not worried about competition, but there's still a long way to go on prop and fintech. A huge opportunity if you make it.

I actually had a question about the difference between Habito and Trussle, because when I was doing my research both seemed very similar, so I thought you two would be direct competitors.

Like I said, both identified that there's an issue. Both said "hey, here's an opportunity to grow a really big, strong company that can take on a very challenging problem" and go out and seek to fix that problem and not just sit back and let the status quo. I think both come from personal experiences. Dan founded this company because he had a hard time getting his mortgage and nearly lost his house because of that. From his experience in tech he though "this is wrong, this should be solved, why are we still faxing bits of paper to each other?". To have other people to identify the same problem as well and look at it slightly differently is great.

But I think one of the things we're approaching differently is that we're directly authorised by the FCA. We have a direct relationship and authorisation by them. Whereas Trussle is an appointed representative for the Mortgage Advice Bureau. So their authorisation sits with another company and they feed into that. There's also a difference in terms of partnership. They partner quite a lot with Zoopla whereas we want to build a brand around home and life. Like I said: we're solving problems in slightly different ways.

One thing we're looking at is that we totally believe it could automated. A lot of this can be automated. If you're looking at remortgaging why can't you just go online or get an email with something that says "here's the best deal for you, click here to remortgage" and you click and it's done. That seems like a no brainer.

Over 90% of our customers prefer live chat, because they can do it at their own pace. On their phone, while they are walking to work. The biggest competitor is what is there as incumbent. Not the two guys that are starting. There's no point fighting that fight.

Where do you go for inspiration. Do you get to design a lot in your role as VP of Product?

I do, actually. I talk a lot about work, about design, but I actually design a lot. Coming from a UX background, I'm very strong on thinking about customer-focused design and psychology and how and why people use technology. What initially inspired me to get down this career route was annoyances with technology and thinking "there must be better ways to get me to my goal". As part of my role I do a lot of UX design as well, possibly around 30% of my week will be sitting with Sketch building pages, flows, wireframes, talking with designers, working with engineers to see what's possible, doing what you'd consider more of a UX role.

In terms of inspiration I use Medium quite a lot and I follow quite a lot of tags around design and UX, inspiration, business, AI, behavioural economics, psychology. Things that are not directly design related I think probably influence me more than the actual design.

Being a power user of products I think is very important for inspiration. I'm not just doing the thing I want to do, I'm asking "what happens if I go down there and how do they handle that bit and what is three levels deep in the navigation. What is their onboarding flow?” Looking at how everybody else is doing it and reading reviews, seeing videos and looking at feedback on people actually using products is a big inspiration. You can avoid some pitfalls. Being involved and reading loads is probably the best thing.

Which research methods do you use at Habito to understand users' needs?

Before I actually started, we got invited to a research group that Habito put on. There was a room full of people with three conversations going on with three groups of people all talking about mortgages. We had to sit behind a dark glass, like in CSI and listen to these people talk about mortgages. We got really good detailed reports back from these psychologists who said "these are your user types. These are their problems, these are their pitfalls. This is the issues that they see. Now you need to build a brand around that". So my first introduction was very deep into research.

We base a lot of what we do on that research and we continue to review that to make sure it's still relevant. For a more products point of view, we run lots of user testing. We use online user testing like where we give tasks and get them to rank and give feedback on. We put our new brand out and asked them to compare us against other mortgage brands and get feedback on that. It helped us to refine our brand. We do product onboarding journeys with questions such as "Do people understand the questions? How does that form make you feel? What if you wanted to save it and come back later?". So we give people quite a lot of tasks.

We're designing a product and an experience for people who are in a  heightened emotional state. "I'm moving in with my partner and buying a house for the first time. My son is going to college, I'm remortgaging to pay for it" or even the other way, "I'm getting divorced, I need to move out and I need to downsize." We need to understand how we design around that and the element of fear is very important. So from a user testing point of view it's very hard to say "imagine you're getting a mortgage".

But one thing that we have which is great is first-line contact with our customers. So when they come through the Habito journey, once they've done the AI part, the chatbot part, they're actually talking to people. We've built up a very good relationship with the mortgage experts to deliver engineering feedback, direct feedback from customers. We have very open feedback channels on Slack where we put our NPS score (Net Promoter Score, measures the willingness of customers to recommend a company's products or services to others), our Trust Pilot scores in there. We're very good at holding up our hands and being accountable. A lot of feedback comes from current users as well. I never worked anywhere where there's such direct connection with our customers.

There's the initial research and then the continual product feedback that we get from testing, which is pre-release. When it's live, how do people navigate when it's live. Because it's always different in lab to when you put it live. I'd rather put something live and iterate on it then spending 9 months building what we think it's the perfect thing and then launching it. Because we're in a such a fast-moving industry, that you need to be pushing things continually forwards and not waiting.

Even our broker experts can get the engineering team to fix problems in 20 minutes, whereas before, when they were in more traditional businesses, they'd have to file a ticket then it would be 2 years later that they'd get that change. We treat our team as customers too and all their feedback goes to making things better.

How do you tackle the challenge of selling Habito to more senior users, if you have this problem? They often prefer to talk to a person on the phone. 

Our target demographic is people who need a mortgage and sometimes people who are older don't need a mortgage. If you're 65 and you're looking for a 20 year mortgage, you'll probably not gonna get it. Because there are different rules about lending into retirement. But then it comes back to how do we educate people when that is the case. So we do a lot of education as you go through the journey. If our chatbot picks up that you'll be lending into retirement, we'll talk about the implications of that, we'll get you prepared about what documents you'll need. We're trying to make it easy for people to understand. We're making things large enough to click and not miss. Stuff like that. But we do tend to find that our main demographic is probably between late 20s to late 40s. They don't have a problem with technology like with seniors. it's a very different paradigm designing something for someone who's 75, but they're not the ones getting a mortgage.

We do however have to deal with people who are technophobes, essentially, and that doesn't have to be older people. One of the things you mentioned in that question is the use of telephony. We're not against to talking to people on the phone. If people would rather call, we'll pick up the phone. We will guide them then through the forms and the application process online. Because, at the end of the day, we need your data in the computer one way or another. It's not the greatest use of our expert's time to be filling that form in for you. So we will help you do that on your own. But if you'd rather talk to someone that's not a problem. We're not egotistical to it being online, we're interested in being customer-centric.

What piece of advice would you give any young aspiring designers?

One thing that helped me is to not take feedback personally. You will put your blood, sweat and tears into what you do. You should give everything into what you design. But when someone is giving you feedback and subjective, it's not a dig on you. It's not an attack on you personally. At an agency I used to work, when I interviewed there, a guy said "We are going to argue about work, we are going to have tense moments. But I'm not arguing against you, I just want the work to be better". That kind of ethos is really important.

Being involved in the industry, going to meetups, getting involved, going to talks, learning from peers, building a mentorship network is really important. Having people who've been there and done that you can question is always really important. Using products but also reading books that are completely non-products or design-oriented. When you think of UX, a lot of that is psychology. So understanding human needs. Books like Sapiens or Homo Deos or Daniel Kahneman. Not related to UX, but in the realm of psychology, of people. Because essentially you're building products for people. So you need to understand how people work with technology. Actually sometimes technology might not be the best solution. How can you build something manually? Like those Amazon buttons to reorder washing powder. It's a digital thing but it's a physical product. Looking for inspiration on non-traditional sources is really important.

In the last couple of years getting into design and UX has become a lot tougher. We're hiring at the moment and we see a wide range of experiences and quality of portfolios. Things for me that make a portfolio stand out is not just the design it's how you used design to solve a problem. If your designs aren't solving a problem, they're art, which is very different from building a product. Just because something is beautiful, doesn't mean it's usable.

Livia Thimotheo

Livia is a UX Designer at Dock9. She's worked in digital products in the financial sector including applications, websites and chatbots. The Design of Everyday Things was her first design book and it completely changed the way she sees the world.