Design Chats

Inside Design: A+E Networks

4 min read
Kristin Hillery
  •  Feb 5, 2018
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Most of us work on one brand at a time. For the design team at A+E, they’ve got a portfolio of brands including: A&E, HISTORY, Lifetime, Lifetime Movies, FYI, VICELAND, and more. With constantly changing consumption patterns, ad-based customers versus subscription-based customers, and a growing list of platforms, there’s no such thing as a dull work day for them.

Leading the charge is Bob Calvano, Vice President of Design and UX. Read on to hear what he had to say about designing for scalability, staying on top of stress, and competing with Netflix.

What’s a typical day for you like at A+E?

A typical day for me starts very early—during my commute to New York City, I mentally transition from home to work by meditating and follow that up with Deepak Chopra affirmations. Om shanti om.

I get to the A+E office before most everyone else, and I love to use that quiet time in the morning to go through email, explore something new, or catch up on something design-related.

“Open communication is a key element in good product design.”

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Every morning at 9:30, I have a standup meeting where I check in with a couple of the designers to review our digital marketing work and review the status of any design work that’s getting done for our A/B testing.

I have quite a few direct reports, so there’s a lot of one-on-one meetings. I value that time to connect with the designers, and it gives me a chance to take a really close look and review work.

Since we’re broken up into various product teams, there’s always a sprint review to attend—this is the best way to catch up on the progress each team has made as they present the past few weeks of work.

I get pulled in many directions, but I gravitate towards what needs the most attention, and I’m looking at that current state of work in progress, giving feedback, and trying to connect as many dots as possible.

And meetings. There’s lots of meetings.

So, a typical day for me is a little bit chaotic. At some point, hopefully I can find the time to eat a nice salad. When the day is done, I make the transition from work to home with another meditation—and then usually fall asleep on the train.

“Don’t jump to conclusions. Don’t be judgmental. Just listen.”

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What do you do when you feel like your day is just being completely consumed by meetings? How do you kind of stay on top of all the stress that comes along with being in your position?

I just let it all happen. What I’m learning right now is to just be as present as I can possibly be in every situation. Don’t jump to conclusions. Don’t be judgmental. Just listen.Twitter Logo I know I’m listening when I’m not thinking about what I should be saying while someone is still talking.

I just try to find some inner space and stay calm even though there’s a lot of things going on.

Outside of work, I do yoga to get the mind-body-spirit connection going. In yoga, when you’re in your calmest state, one of the most impactful things the teacher says is, “Remember this state and this feeling, and call upon it when you need it the most.”

You have no idea how many times I call upon that state of relaxation and calm. I need it often.

How is your team set up?

I oversee all of the UX and UI design across the digital side of the business here at A+E Networks. We’re designing for web—and when I say web, it’s desktop, tablet, and mobile—and we’re designing native apps for iOS and Android platforms. We also design for the OTT realm as well—Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, and whatever comes next.

On the digital side of the business, there are several product teams, and designers are distributed across all of those teams.

The designers are broken up into four main groups:

  • The TV Everywhere group, which we call TVE
  • The SVoD group, subscription video on demand
  • The editorial group
  • The digital marketing and production group

“InVision helps our team get stuff in front of people much faster.”

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There are UX designers and UI designers on these product teams. But what’s been happening over the past few years is they are evolving into product designers and the lines are blurring between UX and UI. A lot of this has to do with their curiosity and willingness to continuously learn new things. They are a really amazing group of people.

We have a few different levels of people on the design team—art directors, senior designers, and designers. They all have one specialty or another, but they’re typically brought in because they have UX or UI skills. They’re all talented, and right now we have a really good, solid team.

You’re designing for a ton of different brands. How do you handle feature requests for all of them?

Because our team is small and there are so many brands, we’ve had to make some decisions about the most effective and efficient way to go forward. So with everything we design, we think about how it’ll scale across all of our brands. We’re designing for scalability.

In the past, designers were on teams that were a bit siloed. One designer would work on History, one would work on A&E, one on Lifetime, etc. There wasn’t very much synergy.

Now that we’re structured differently, we take all of the brands into consideration. A TV Everywhere product team, for example, will create design solutions that are scalable and will work across the portfolio of brands. So the way that we design for one brand is really the way we design for all the brands.

“There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel.”

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The differentiators are logos, color palettes, fonts, key art, and things like that. There are a few nuances. For example, our Lifetime app has a “Movies” section, but for the most part, the core is the same.

What that really allows is for the content to come to life—and the content needs to be the biggest differentiator and the biggest driver for the users who are coming to those different brands to engage in the content.

It’s really nice having all of these brands to work with. They’re all different. But hopefully what we’re doing is designing and building things that are really easy to use and simple to navigate.

If we design a solution—like figuring out the best way to navigate to a piece of content for one brand—and we think that’s the best way to do it, there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel for another brand. We’re looking to solve a problem once and then build it out multiple times.

Do you have to make any sacrifices, design-wise, because of that?

There are some sacrifices made, no doubt. When you design for scale, you can’t solve every problem for every brand.Twitter Logo One thing we sacrifice is custom brand fonts. We don’t pull custom fonts into our web experiences for many reasons. One is that it’s not easily scalable across all of our brands, but the other is the amount of time it actually takes to load those fonts in, especially on a mobile phone if you’re on wifi or using your data. Many times we choose not to bring in custom fonts because they haven’t been optimized for digital screen use and they don’t render well, or they’re intended for display purposes only.

We’re looking at what’s the fastest, most efficient way to have a screen render the content and present the information. So we sacrifice things like custom fonts.

We also might scale back on some animations or transitions for a number of reasons, like for the sake of load time. Sometimes a designer may have one of the most beautiful animations or transitions to go within an app, but in order to keep the code clean and in order to keep the build as light as possible, we make sacrifices. Sometimes we go with the best solution we can come up with using Xcode.

“With InVision, we can share work more easily across the entire organization.”

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For the designers, yeah, it’s really heartbreaking. We sacrifice a little bit of brand identity for user experience, and we sacrifice some of the things the designers think are incredibly important little nuances and transitions. And they are incredibly important, but if there’s an area we’re going to sacrifice, it’s in that space.

Talk to us about the ad-based side of things versus the subscription-based side. What are the main challenges with designing for each of those?

Oh, boy. I’ll just start on the ad-based side. Number one: people don’t like ads. The ad experience on the ad-based side is a challenge. The tolerance is really low for ads, and that’s based on the current state of the industry with Netflix, Hulu, HBO, and all of these subscription-based products that are not ad-based.

We have to manage the expectations for people that they will get ads.

I think some of the biggest challenges for us have to do with technical issues that come up within the industry. Some things we have no control over, and some things are hard to control.

For example, we’re moving away from Flash and going to HTML5, and there are some technical issues with how ads are served.

“Design is really about identifying, defining, and solving problems.”

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Something we can’t control at all is if an agency submits bad creative that will crash our player. We do everything we can to identify the bad creative and remove it, but it’s tough to police this stuff. We also get complaints like, “Hey, we’ve seen the same ad over and over. Why is that happening?” It’s just the way that programmatic bidding works.

Some of these challenges we can control, some we can’t, and the users are the ones who are experiencing all of this and giving us the feedback, “This is what we like, this is what we don’t like, and this is what’s happening when I’m trying to watch a video.” There’s nothing like reading through app reviews.Twitter Logo

One of our top priorities here is to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to improve the ad experience, and that’s a big challenge.

On the subscription-based side of the business, things are much different—people typically seem to enjoy the commercial free space a lot more. People are paying for a service, so the biggest challenges that we have here are really around acquisition and retention. To get people to download an app, start a free trial, and then convert them into a paying subscriber is a huge business challenge. The content will hopefully speak for itself, and people will want to pay for this premium and exclusive content.

The biggest challenge was when we first started to design the subscription-based products—it was new adventure for us to move away from the ad-based model—we were solving new problems now and thinking through new use cases and scenarios for the first time. We had to learn a lot very quickly. After we built our first SVOD product, as I mentioned, the next challenge was acquiring folks, turning them into subscribers, and retaining them.

Obviously, you’re competing with Netflix and Hulu. How do you stay competitive with them?

We’re competing with Netflix the same way compete with everyone else—we’re competing for people’s time. When people want to be entertained or they just want to have something to do for a few minutes, we’re competing for their time the same as we would compete with any other television network, or a good book, or whatever the latest game is like, Candy Crush. We want people to spend time with our content and with our products.

“We’re competing for people’s time.”

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That, to me, is the biggest competitive factor. We’re looking to design and build experiences that will engage people and gain their continued interest so that they’ll spend time with our products and content versus choosing Netflix, versus choosing Candy Crush, or picking up a good book.

The way that we compete is we give our best effort to make products that are relevant, products that fill a need for people, products that are useful. Products need to fill a need in your life. Otherwise, folks aren’t going to use them. So that’s the challenge—to make stuff that’s relevant, easy to use, and has great content in it.

How do you think consumption patterns are changing?

They’ve changed so much over the past few years. We keep coming up with new names for the types of behavior that we see. A while back, it was “binge-watching,” right? We saw everybody going through libraries of content and pulling all-nighters and just watching one episode after the next.

We’ve also seen a shift in when people watch, and where they watch, and how they watch. It’s gone from sitting in your living room and having a 10-foot experience, to every other type of experience that a mobile phone can offer, that a tablet can offer, that a laptop can offer, and we’ve gone full circle back to a 10-foot experience an Apple TV or game console can offer.

“Products need to fill a need in someone’s life.”

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The consumption patterns are changing in ways that we’re not even aware of. Here’s a good customer insight we got: We just did some user research and connected with the user who said that they loved one of our apps. This guy is a user of the History app, and he was incredibly happy with it—and he loves to use it while he’s fishing.

I never imagined that people would be using the app while fishing. I would think that while they’re fishing, they’re fishing. If I were fishing, I would be doing it to get away from every screen that I look at. But we see consumption patterns now where people use their devices wherever they are and whenever they’re doing things.

We also see that there is a lot more individual viewing taking place. People aren’t sitting around together very much anymore and engaging in event-based viewing like they used to. There are some exceptions, like the Super Bowl, but there’s a lot of this individual use taking place, and they’re doing it when they have their own time.

In my house, for example, there’s me and my wife, and we have a few kids. There are times when we are all in the same room, and everyone is consuming something completely different, each one of us is on a different device, and every device has a different screen size.

What skill do you think is undervalued for designers?

Our gut, our intuition. There’s so much emphasis on data—there’s a lot of quantitative information out there. The data tells us what happened. But that data doesn’t tell you what to do.

The other thing I think is undervalued is our problem-solving skills. Designers have the ability to look at things at a high level.Twitter Logo We’re problem solvers by trade—design is really about identifying, defining, and solving problems.

“Data doesn’t tell you what to do.”

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How does your team use InVision?

InVision saves us a ton of time.Twitter Logo It lets us share our work across the entire design team, with our developers, with the folks who are doing QA. The bottom line is we can share work more easily across the entire organization. We use InVision for prototyping, Inspect helps us transition work from designers to developers, and we’ve already started to use DSM.

We share our InVision prototypes with people outside of the product teams so that we can get feedback as quickly as possible. So, InVision definitely helps us get stuff in front of people much faster.

“InVision just makes it so much easier for teams to collaborate.”

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We also use Boards to create mood boards as well as capture competitive research. When we do competitive research, we’re able to gather everything quickly, have it look nice and neat, and share that stuff out as well. We try to work as quick, lean, and efficient as we can. Boards definitely helps us with that.

InVision just makes it so much easier for teams to collaborate. We’ll pull up a prototype and look at it with developers and other designers to get as much feedback as possible. Open communication is a key element in good product design.Twitter Logo

Do you have any advice for giving feedback that doesn’t hurt people’s feelings or make things awkward?

The first thing that has to happen: the design team leader needs to create a safe space—a space where people feel like they can say what they need to say, and that it’ll stay in that room. You’ve got to create an environment where people are willing to open up and share.

I wouldn’t have hired the people I’ve hired if I were going to get terrible design from them. So usually—and hopefully—there’s always something good in front of me. That’s what I like to build feedback off of.

“When you’re giving feedback, start with the good stuff.”

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After giving feedback on what’s good, the rest of the feedback that I give starts by me asking questions. For example, I ask questions about why certain design decisions have been made, why something looks the way it does, or why the hierarchy is the way it is. I can give good feedback if I ask questions and listen to the designer explain why something is the way it is. It’s always about the why.

So, when you’re giving feedback, start with the good stuff. Ask questions about the things that you may not understand so you can get the why and then make informed suggestions.

Once you understand the why, that opens up an opportunity for potential alternative solutions to come into place.

Photos by Kholood Eid.

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