Design Leader Insights - Calvin Robertson on Intentional Experience Design

February 27, 2024


Alex Smith:  Design Leader Insights is brought to you by Fuego UX. Fuego UX is a leading UX research, strategy, and design consultancy. Hey Calvin, thanks so much for joining the show today. 

Calvin Robertson: Yeah, thanks for having me Alex. 

Alex Smith: Yeah, for sure. And to get started, can you give the audience a bit of context in your journey in UX design? 

Calvin Robertson: Funny enough, I didn't start out in design. I actually started as a web developer. So graduating from North Carolina A& T back in 2000, I had a degree. It was called Graphic Communication Systems. But my one and only job offer out of college was as a Java web App developer at Hallmark cards. And it was for me, it was like the perfect storm because I learned how to code while I was in college on top of my design degree. So that allowed me the affordance to go into an IT department, and have a full time job as a developer. But I kind of cut a deal with some of my project managers. So if I had a two week sprint that project manager agreed that if I got the work done in one week. I could use the other half of that sprint to, you know, work on more design forward things. And so I'm, that gave me an avenue to be both a designer and actually influence how code was written, right? To create the type of experiences that I wanted to see at Hallmark. And so yeah, I just kind of rode that train and it, and it wasn't until 2012 when I saw a job posting for someone in UX at the Federal Reserve Bank. And so my transition into UX formally was that, that was the first time I saw it like written, here's a job posting for it. Curious, I said, what is this? I want to lean into that a little bit more. And yeah, I went from a UX designer at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. Transition into a leader a year or two later, a UX manager. And then that really started my, not only my transition as an IC, but into leadership, specifically focusing on user experience. And so from the federal reserve bank, I moved to Lowe's. I was at Lowe's for a couple of years. Now I'm at Best Buy, having been at Best Buy for almost three years now. So I've been, you know, from that, from those three, you know, companies I just mentioned, I've been on a leadership track specifically for, for UX.

Alex Smith: This may be too niche, but I think when I think about Best Buy, I think about the availability of people to talk to. How do you think about the balance there? Because obviously the younger generation probably doesn't want to talk to anyone. Or maybe, maybe that's not true, but that's my assumption. Like, how do you think about that balance of like physical problems of someone to help versus do it yourself? 

Calvin Robertson: Yeah, that is a constant conversation that we have internally. I think the best way to describe it is we try to think of people not in a binary sense. As in, oh, you're young, so only way you're ever going to shop is on, you know, or, or talk or write or Instagram or whatever, or if you're elderly that you'll never use an app, right? I was going to, I was going to talk to an associate, right? And while, you know, we can do research and we can find certain patterns, right? If you look hard enough, you can find any pattern to support anything that you believe in. But the way we're trying to think about it is, is more from a, do our customers and our employees have access to the thing that they're looking for or the way they want to look for or the way they want to shop? And it kind of gives them the opportunity to decide how they want to do it. Right? And so, yeah, you could start with, hey, we're seeing a trend that, you know, and this isn't, you know, factual, just using an example, we're seeing a trend that, you know, customers are coming in and. They're shopping on TikTok, so that means we just have to throw all of our money into investing in TikTok, right? Or is it more of a sense of, hey, where are people? Where are people spending time and can we meet them where they are? And then as we invest in that, is it also part of the entire ecosystem? So we're, we're showing up in all the possible places, and it's more well-rounded. It's more intentional and thought out. Think about your own shopping experiences, whether you're going to a grocery store or you're shopping for a car or whatever, do you always shop for those things the exact same way? 

Alex Smith: No, I was just thinking about this. Yeah. 

Calvin Robertson: Depending on the day, right? Depending on the day, depending on the mood, depending on, you know, are they sick or not? Depending on lifestyle changes. So that's how we try to think about it in a way that, you know, allows us to address what we hear. But then also let's bring some of that internally. Let's build the teams and let's build the camaraderie with cross functional teams to be able to address that like more, more holistically. Right? So easier said than done. You can imagine any company deciding on Best Buy, like that's a, that's a, a, a  job too, to put it in, but that's. That's why we're here. That's what our role is. 

Alex Smith: So how are you motivating? And yeah, I guess just in general, like leading a team of designers effectively.

Calvin Robertson: Well, that's a good, good question. You know, I think it first starts off with it starts with me. It starts with one of the reasons why I transitioned into leadership in the first place. One, it was more of a, you know, I'd, I'd like to be here and be honest and say it was all like altruistic, right? The reality was I saw the limitations in myself and that's when it is slowly dawned on me that if I wanted to make the impact that I wanted to make as a designer, now as a design leader, I have to step away from the design myself. I have to raise up other designers. To do either work at my level or preferably better than I could do when I was in IC. You know, you get further and further in the leadership and then you're talking to other managers that are really showing you the ropes on how to do it. And really how to build a team and how to advocate for your team and to, you know, kind of have a long view, look into the future and start to build certain relationships and put certain things in place to where the designers don't have to think about it. Right? They know, and they trust that their leader is. Thinking enough about the future and where we're going as a, as a group, as a design core, but again, I'm not in the weeds per se, I'm not defining or prescribing what the solutions are. I'm leaving enough out so that the leaders or the designers in my organization can fill in the gaps.

Alex Smith: No, I love, I love that you're leaving room for ideation, innovation for the designers. And then I think that that was a great explanation of the realization of weight. I have to delegate if I want to do more here and that's so, so much easier said than done. I want to ask you advice you have from your designers entering the field today?

Calvin Robertson: Not being afraid to be the customer in a sense I think in our industry you know, it's not lost on me that the market is tough right now. Everybody's organization, you know, maybe going through this or that, right. So it's, it's super, super tough. It's super tough right now. I think in that though, there is an opportunity for designers to really lean in and to, to start to add a lot of value and to, to make some noise to cause trouble like good trouble and to use their design expertise to to shake things up and to change things. Right? And so one of the things I mentioned all the time is you know, when we're doing our work. When we're, you know, we have our UX hat on and we're thinking about end users, we have all the empathy in the world, but when it comes to working with people internally, like people sitting right beside us, you have non designers that are on our team. Empathy goes out the window. It's like, what happened to all that empathy that we were total stranger 100 percent agree working with like, it's like, oh, they did this. They are okay. Okay. What if you put on your research hat, your discovery hat, and you started to interview them and you started to do quote unquote design thinking activities with them, not to find a solution, but to find a solution, not to find a solution for it, use it, but to find a solution on how we can work better to then produce a solution internally, you have to be the customer in the sense of the customer being the person that works with an engineer or product manager or data analyst or when, or project manager or, you know, stakeholder or whoever, and you also have to be the customer of said experience that you're trying to create and think about it from that perspective and, and, and bring those two in. And not be afraid to, to express some of those ideas. And I know as I'm saying that, like every company's different, mileage may vary. But in a way there's no, there's no way around it, right? If it doesn't come from us, nobody's going to give you that directive. So you just have to just know that this needs to be done and find a way to, to get that message out and to make those relationships, those connections, to be able to do it.

Alex Smith: Well, Calvin, thanks so much for joining the show today. I really appreciate you coming on.

Calvin Robertson: Alex, it was a blast. Thanks for inviting me. And yeah, I appreciate you, man.