Bob Calvano, VP Design, A+E Networks

Bob Calvano, VP Design, A+E Networks

How do you design for half a dozen brands, across multiple platforms, products and channels, without being paralyzed by the sheer scope of what you're trying to do? Bob Calvano, VP Design at A+E Networks, is in the thick of it right now. Bob is at the helm of a 15-person design team hashing out a design system that will be the core to consistent user experiences across a family of brands that includes A&E®, HISTORY®, Lifetime®, Lifetime Movies™, FYI,™, VICELAND℠ and BIOGRAPHY®.

Located on the same floor in the same office in New York, running a form of agile, A&E Networks designers communicate and collaborate closely to define and develop a cohesive system. Rather than thinking about platform, platform, platform, they now think about one experience, driven by a single system. Bob joins us to talk about his vision for unifying everything, the early stages and how small bites keep his team moving forward.


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Carl Smith: Hey everybody, and welcome back to the Bureau Briefing, it's Carl. And stopping by the Bureau Studios today, we've got Mr. Bob Calvano, the VP of Design at A&E Networks. How's it going Bob?

Bob Calvano: It's going very well. Thanks so much for having me, Carl. 

Carl Smith: Ah, thanks for being here. We met at Design Leadership Camp, had a few little adventures there. 

Bob Calvano: It was fun. Yeah, it was fun. 

Carl Smith: I have to say, you absolutely became one of my favorite people. As we were going through the whole experience of Design Leadership Camp, and some of the non session type stuff. So I just wanted to get you on the show, and understand more about what it is that you do everyday. Because it kind of blows my mind to think that you're in charge os design across all digital products, all channels, all platforms, all everything, across multiple channels. So is this what you wanted to do when you grow up? Was this the plan?

Bob Calvano: No, when I was growing up I wanted to be a rock star. That was the plan. That didn't work out though, so in my abandonment of the journey to become a rock star, that's really when I found design and fell in love with design. This job didn't exist. This did not exist when I was in school. So no, I couldn't have envisioned this at all. And it wasn't like there was this really planned out, direct path to get to this place. Only because, technology I think has gotten us to where we are today. You know, my day is crazy. You hit it right on the head there. There's a number of brands, there's a number of platforms. There's a whole lot of stuff going on, and I like it that way. I like sort of the chaos and the hectic scenarios and the pace. But it is a lot, and we're trying to figure out how to do this more efficiently, because the past few years has been nuts. 

Carl Smith: So what kind of team structure do you have? Like who's helping you out?

Bob Calvano: So the team, believe it or not, we're a very small team. So there's 15 people total, including myself. And that's just from a design perspective. The larger digital team, we're about 100 people or so. And the way that we're structured, I'll give you like high level, and then we'll get down into my team. There's myself, Head of Design, there's a Head of Product, and then there's Head of Technology. Us tree, we report into the same guy. You know, we all have the same boss. And it's us three, this triad that really have to be in alignment, and coordinate things, and really be on the same page with each other, so that we can, you know, pretty much meet the goals that we need to meet. 

So as long as us three are in alignment, then it's about getting our teams really to collaborate on what the key performance indicators are going to be, those types of things. And we're going to measure how we're going to track it. 

Carl Smith: So the three of you are working together to maintain the consistency across all of this as well, right? 

Bob Calvano: Yeah, yes. All from a different point of view, right? When it comes to my team structure, where we have product teams, right? So we're broken up into product teams. And we're running some sort of form that looks and smells like Agile, but isn't exactly Agile. So the teams are multi disciplinary teams, and the way the design team works, is the folks are distributed out onto product teams. So on each product team, you'll have at least someone that's focusing on UI, like a product design type person. And then you'll have folks that will focus on like user research. So a little bit like the UX research kind of role. 

Carl Smith: Okay. 

Bob Calvano: Some traditional, like UXD, UX Design stuff going on there as well. And you know, we're basically broken up across all these teams, but come together and unite as a centralized big happy design family all the time. 

Carl Smith: So how often does the team actually get together? Are they in the same location? Are they distributed? How does that work?

Bob Calvano: We're all in the same office. We're all here in New York. Lovely 45th street in Manhattan. So we're all here on the same building, on the same floor. So people are pretty close. The nice thing is, we used to get together as a formal team sort of more frequently than we do right now. I think it just has to do with the amount of things going on, the amount of product teams, the number of moving parts right now. Wow that was loud, did you hear that? 

Carl Smith: I did, it was great. I had a vision that was the bat signal calling you, because they just updated Roku or something. 

Bob Calvano: Yeah, you know what? Let me get rid of that, if I can get rid of that, I will. 

Carl Smith: No worries at all. 

Bob Calvano: So you know, I just lost all train of thought. That little bong made me just lose every thought I had in my head. What were we talking about?

Carl Smith: We were talking about how often the team gets together, and you were saying that it's not as often now as it used to be. 

Bob Calvano: Right? And it's funny how a calendar reminder dings in the background as we say that. So the nice thing is, we can get together as often as we want or as often as we need to. Everybody is in the same place. What I really push is for the folks to collaborate as much as possible, and to talk to each other, because every team is at a different point. Some are ahead of others in some ways, and some are ahead of others in other ways. You know, we're all, for the I guess lack of a better term here, we're all solving the same problems. 

Virtually, the same problems. We have different products that have slightly different nuances and different scenarios and different use cases, and things like that. But you know, the designers on the teams are solving generally the same types of problems. And it's all just about who is solving what problem. And this is the one that we're on right now, and have you guys done that yet? Oh, let's leverage what you've learned and borrow from that. The plan that I have, this future vision here, is that everything will be completely unified. And the only way to get there is collaboration and communication. Those two things will get us to where we need to be. 

Carl Smith: So I'm just sitting here, trying to contemplate having everything unified. 

Bob Calvano: Yeah, I know. It's mind blowing. 

Carl Smith: Explain just for a second, the breadth of execution. That the number of places that the content is going. 

Bob Calvano: Okay. So it goes a lot of places. You know, we have our products distributed on the web, so that's on desktop and tablet and mobile devices. We also have our products distributed natively, so it could be on an iOS mobile phone, it could be Android phones and tablets. But then it goes to the next view, is the 10 foot view, we're on Apple TV, so it's TVOS, it's the legacy Apple, it's Roku, it's Amazon Fire TV. We were on XBOX for a while, but we sunset those products. We're currently building for Android TV, and going to be launching on a number of platforms that we're not on right now. So things like Samsung Tizen are coming into play, as well as other platforms. We haven't decided if we're going to release on like PS4 yet, but there's the technology that we're using that's going to allow us to more easily distribute to all these platforms. 

So there's a lot of platforms, but then it goes across a number of brands. The primary ones are A&E, and History, and Lifetime. And we have FYI. So those are the four brands that we have products distributed across. But then it gets into ad based products versus subscription based products. And then we have a few products that are subscription based. One is called History Vault, and one is called Lifetime Movie Club. They're both for very much a niche type audience. You know, history buffs, history lovers, we have a lot of this documentary style content. And with Lifetime Movie Club, it's pretty much what it sounds like. We have a bunch of movies bundled up into an app, and you subscribe to that app, and get access to all these movies. Same thing, we're on, you know, the products are distributed across web, and they're native on iOS. They're native on Android. 

And they go across Roku, TVOS, et cetera, et cetera. So it's a lot of products, a lot of different brands, and a lot of platforms. Which is why this vision of having everything unified, you know. It's just this moment, it will be this moment of Zen if and when we can get there. 

Carl Smith: I want to buy you a beer, I want to buy you several beers. Just because, just listing all of that out, and I'm sure you've got it up on a wall, in some sort of a conference room and you're looking at all of it. But does this scratch the designer itch in you? Like when you look at this as a problem, is that something, or do you miss actually designing? 

Bob Calvano: What I would say that I design right now, I'm designing a team, and I'm designing a culture. I'm designing the ability for the designers that we have on the team right now to potentially do the best work in their career. So I'm not pushing the pixels like I used to, but this is a really tough problem to solve, and I like being in the middle of working on solving this problem, and getting everything in place that we need to try to unify. So something that's new to me, and that the whole team is learning, the beginning stages of a design system right now, which is going to be the core to helping us unify stuff. 

You know, having that design system work across multiple products and platforms and brands, and all those things is a bit tricky. But I look at this is what I'm really involved in designing right now. It's a space that we can actually unify in. 

Carl Smith: Yeah, and design systems, you know, I guess it was a couple of years ago that you started to hear that people were putting things like this together, and now it's coming very full force. So how do you approach that, starting from scratch? When did you start working on the design system?

Bob Calvano: Well, it's been a long time coming. You know, it actually started a couple of years ago, but I wasn't calling it a design system. What I was saying is that we need to unify our experiences across all platforms, and that kind of stuff. And we started to do this with an audit, and looking at all the different things that made up our products, and getting rid of all of the redundancies and multiple versions of things that we had. So you know, it's been a long time making this thing, getting it down actually to the point where we could turn it into a system. Right? So it was a lot of hard work, just doing the audit, evaluating everything, and then coming to an agreement on, here's the foundation. We kind of set that foundation and it was great, but then it started to sort of go off in little tangents, and one team would start doing their own thing, another team would start doing their own thing. So it started to get a little bit out of control again. We're bringing it all back. And the way that we're doing it is in a very small bite. 

But I think what paralyzed me for a while is trying to do it across everything, all at the same time. And there was no good answer there. It was actually quite frustrating, and I couldn't really understand how to make it work, how things came together, or where things would fit or talk to each other and plug in. So what we decided to do is do something really small, pilot this thing in one area. And pilot it in a way that we test it, see if it works, and we scale it at the same time. So we're starting small with our 10 foot views, so it's across all of our Apple TV, Roku, Android TV type devices, and we're building a system that works there. As we're getting those components in place right now, we are looking to unify the web experience with our OTT experience. 

So the only way to do that is like I said, to have designers collaborating, and to start looking at the design system, the components in there, and saying, "Okay, how are these things transferrable, how do we come to agreements on, here's the components that are going to go across all the platforms, and we're figuring that stuff out as we go. So we're dragging in the web team right now, and saying, "Okay, we've got this small little system that we're working on building, and we need to unify the experience on the web with these platforms, and let's start building and scaling the system from there." What are the nuances that we need to think about with web? What are the differences, what are the similarities? And decide what goes into the system. 

Carl Smith: So how do you engage those designers? You mentioned culture earlier. How do you engage those designers in unifying something, when for a lot of designers, it's creating something? And you mentioned them going a little bit rogue at one point. So how do you instill that in them, that this is success?

Bob Calvano: Well, that's a great question. I think it's a lot of communication on my part, saying, "Here's what we're doing, here's what we need to do." At first it was getting their feet wet with design systems, right? You know. And letting them go on their tangents, and figuring out, does this work with Storybook? Do we put it in Zeppelin until Zeppelin breaks? Do we try a Design Studio Manager? Just try things. And as things were being tried, and tested, and working or breaking and not working, it's about having the conversations. And saying, "Okay, you guys have all tried something. Everybody's getting their feet wet. There's some good progress being made. But we can't continue to design this way or build this way, because it's super crazy inefficient." And showing folks how we can be more efficient. 

There's a lot of numbers. You could look at efficiency, you could look at what are the benefits from unifying everything. But then there's also time to market. So there's a number of things you could talk about. And say like, "Here's why. Here are the reasons we're doing these things. We can release onto five platforms all at once, without having to redesign or rebuild if we do things in this way." And I think everybody understands that, you know? It's a smart team. They all want to work faster and smarter. And no one wants to redo things over and over and over. And that's the way we were working, we would design for one platform, then we would design for the next, then we would design for the next. And what we're doing now is we're experimenting, we're in a proof of concept right now with this company, working to pretty much design once, and deploy across a number of OTT devices without having to think so much about each specific platform. 

So really it's about one specific experience across all those platforms, and leveraging smart design once, versus redoing it over and over and over. And I think it's easy to get folks to buy into that.

Carl Smith: Absolutely. And not having to redo that same design again and again. Right? That's definitely moving them towards more creation, because they've got more time.

Bob Calvano: Yeah, well it opens up the ability to solve problems that are worth solving, versus you know, a darn play button again and again. Right? So rather than figure out how do we lay this thing out over and over, you can start thinking about some of the bigger problems to solve. Like how do we actually get users to start free trials, and get through that funnel, and convert them over to subscribers? What could we do with the flow and the experience to get folks to engage more? Because we know people that are engaged more are folks that are going to renew their subscription, or folks that are going to become more loyal, et cetera, et cetera. So there's a lot bigger problems to solve then how do we lay this exact same thing out, on some different platform over and over. 

And when they see the opportunity, start thinking more strategically, and working with the product owners, and really getting involved in those conversations, that's room to grow. Not designing the same things over and over. 

Carl Smith: Yeah. So as you look at starting small, and then rolling it out, how do you start with the quality control? 

Bob Calvano: That's a great question. We're figuring it out. So I don't know, we don't have a great governance model or anything like that in place yet, right? It's a big of a trial and error. The quality control, luckily we're a small team. So it's not going to get completely out of control and way too hairy. You know, the quality control is very much going to be I think the team agreeing on what goes into a system, what doesn't go into a system. And anything that's in that system, if you're going to make a change to it, you're going to need to agree on what that change is going to be, before it actually goes into the system. I think that's where as a small team, us getting together frequently and talking about this stuff will kind of help set up that governance model. 

Carl Smith: So I love how much you focus on conversation, right? And I think no matter what type of creative endeavor, or any type of team effort, it always comes back to communication, doesn't it?

Bob Calvano: It's the number one reason things break down, I think anyway. You know, any time there's a problem, it's because there's some kind of communication issue. 

Carl Smith: I totally agree. It's always humans, right? It's always not understanding, not hearing correctly. And no matter how much you document, eventually, especially with a design system, there's going to be so much documentation that it just glazes people. So it's going to be still point to point communication. 

Bob Calvano: Agreed. And I would love to do it in a way where we have the right amount of documentation. Not too much, not too little, but as lean as possible. And enough that makes sense to whoever is going to be working with the system, whether it's a designer, or product owner, or developer. You know, whoever. Over documentation is not going to do anyone any good, and no one is going to read that stuff anyway. 

Carl Smith: Yeah. So what do you think, I mean, from a timing perspective, it will never be over. 

Bob Calvano: No. Never. 

Carl Smith: But what do you think in terms of an 80%, or 90%, or something where you're going into a maintenance and reevaluation mode? You said it sort of started a couple of years ago, thinking about it. So where do you think, like a year from now, two years from now. 

Bob Calvano: Okay, so this is probably a little bit easier for me to see now than it was in the past, because of the technology we're playing around with. So we're able to look at, I hate using this word. We're able to look at a roadmap, if you will. For when we would want to launch products on certain platforms. So we could say, "Okay, the first thing we're going to tackle are all the 10 foot devices with our ad based products." The next thing we're going to tackle is mobile, phones and tablets for our ad based products. As soon as we have that stuff done, we're going to look at bringing in our subscription based products. So a year from now, we should have all of our ad based products, and our two subscription based products working within a system. 

And what this will allow us to do is stop thinking about platform, platform, platform, and start thinking about one experience, one system driving it. And once we have that, we're going to move so much faster. 

Carl Smith: Yeah, without a doubt. 

Bob Calvano: You know, a year from now, we should be through the new technology that we're working with. Like, proving it out. Like, yes this works. We should be launched, multiple products across multiple platforms with a system in place, and designers hopefully solving the bigger problems like what's the best way for someone to get from a free trial person to a subscribing person. 

Carl Smith: Well that's exciting man. I mean, it's a year. A year is tomorrow. 

Bob Calvano: Right. 

Carl Smith: Well, thanks so much and sharing that with us, Bob. I have to say, I have a better insight into it now. And I'm sure there's so many nuances within there, but I really appreciate you letting us in on your day. 

Bob Calvano: It's a total pleasure, there are many nuances that the rate at which things are changing is pretty rapid. I find myself, there's a lot of new whiteboards up on the wall in people's offices. I find myself drawing out the scenario over and over, on everybody's office wall that will allow me to talk through this, and that they're willing to listen, because it's just helpful. It's helpful in trying to see this picture. I'm hoping a year from now, it all actually comes together. 

Carl Smith: Well you know, I'm going to circle back with you a year from now, and we'll check in and see how things are going. 

Bob Calvano: Fantastic. I'd love to give you an update. 

Carl Smith: Sounds great. For everybody listening- 

Bob Calvano: All right. 

Carl Smith: Thank you so much, and we'll be back next week. All the best. 

Photo via A+E Networks