Q&A with Dan Makoski, Vice President of Design @ Walmart

Dan Makoski is a Silicon Valley executive who leads innovation by design.

He is VP of Design at Walmart, leading an extraordinary team of UX Researchers and Designers to transform the way the world saves money and lives better.

Dan started Project ARA at Google, designed the original Surface at Microsoft, led design research globally at Motorola, and was the first VP of Design at Capital One. Dan began his career at the world’s top design agencies and even started his own at one point (now on pause).

The common thread across his career is the belief that design is most powerful when it’s an expression of humble service, and innovation is most impactful when it fosters openness and inclusion.

Most importantly, Dan knows seven versions of the running man.

Dan is presenting Design For Living Better at Agile India 2018 on March 7th, 2018.  Click here for conference details and tickets.

Q: How did you find design?

I was an International Relations major in college when my dad gave me a book called “Information Architects” by Richard Saul Wurman. I was so captivated by the design challenge of “making the complex clear” in an information-dense world, that I never looked back on pursuing a career in Design!

Q: Describe your role.

I lead Design at Walmart, creating the right environment for our global team of Design Researchers, Interaction, Conversation and Visual Designers to translate our company’s deep empathy for customers into experiences that help them save money and live better.

Q: How do you and your colleagues generate creative ideas?

We try to spend as much time as we can immersing ourselves in the lives of the people and households that we design for. There is nothing more powerful for idea generation than sitting down with a family to understand their hopes, dreams, frustrations and desired new experiences.

Q: How do you encourage collaboration between teams?

We recently moved to a “neighbourhood” model with general floor locations for different end-to-end teams, but without assigned seating. This encourages Designers, Engineers and Product Managers to sit elbow to elbow across disciplines, fostering more of a startup, coworking spirit of scrappy experimentation and innovation. This is a symbol of our philosophy of integrating Design across every team, method, strategy and way of working.

Q: What advice do you have for leaders attempting to create an innovative workspace?

Put everything on wheels. Get rid of cubicles. Use affordable foam core boards with simple stands as space dividers. Respect the headphone rule: if they’re on, it’s like I’m in my personal office and the door is closed. Set your calendar permissions to “public”. As a leader, walk the floor and ask yourself this question every day: “How can I unblock/serve/accelerate my team?”

Q: How do you see the design business evolving over the next years?

Design is becoming more integrated into how the world works. We see every CEO exploring how Design Thinking can transform their strategy, many independent Design agencies getting acquired by larger companies, and a new breed of Design leaders being asked to lead teams and create an empathetic and innovative corporate culture. As Designers, we know how to design objects, products, services, and end-to-end experiences. The next challenge is to design a culture and environment that embraces Design at all levels.

Q: Tell us about your talk/workshop.

There will be Play-Doh. (The rest is a surprise!)

Q: What types of Agile processes have you implemented before?

Like many large companies, we’ve moved through the transition from a waterfall approach to software development to an Agile approach. It was pretty messy, particularly in the “WaterGile” phase of not really doing either method well… but we got through it by focusing on outcomes and adapting Agile to work with our culture.

Q: What is your idea of an Agile mindset in the context of UX Design?

There are three innovation approaches that need be harmonized: Agile coming from Technology, Design Thinking coming from Design, and Lean coming from Business. The key is to integrate aspects of each without diluting the strengths. I’d argue that healthy UX Design has already had the essence of an Agile mindset long before the process was articulated: creating an attitude of learning, rapid iteration, focusing on a few things that matter most, multi-disciplinary methods, etc. What I’ve found more difficult is having a Design mindset in an Agile/tech-oriented process. For example, ensuring there is a larger vision, deeper emotional sensitivity, and sprints every so often for reflection and divergent thinking.

Q: What is the hardest part about being a leader?

The hardest part of being a leader, particularly in Design, is pioneering new models of collaborative, bottoms-up innovation. We’re so used to the traditional and hierarchical “Design Dictator” model, that new ways of simultaneously elevating experience cohesion and individual agency are hard to discover. 

Q: What is your favorite part?

Connected to the above answer, my favorite part of being a leader is unlocking individual agency in teams and Designers.

Q: What advice do you have for young people?

Stop calling people “users”, and involve them in the messy middle of your creative Design or Agile process!

To See Dan Register Here. If you cannot attend, presentation videos will be available. 

Dan Makoski

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