Zalando Design Leaders: Chatting with Anne Pascual, Timm Kekeritz, Gerrit Kaiser, hosted by Shruti Ramiah
“Chatting with” is our new series of informal conversations with Product Design leadership at Zalando. We start with Anne Pascual (SVP Product Design); Timm Kekeritz (Director of Product Design); Gerrit Kaiser (Director of Product Design). This first session is hosted by Shruti Ramiah (Head of Product Design). Here are the highlights from their chat. You can click the YouTube link at the end for the full, unedited experience.
Shruti: The last 16 months of working from home has been rather solitary. We’ve lost a lot of those casual conversations, and bumping into our colleagues in hallways. But it’s also been a time when we’ve grown our community a great deal. There are a lot of new faces in our team, so we wanted to take a chance to introduce more of them beyond their titles and roles. So that’s what Chatting With is all about.
We can get going with a little bit of background. So I’d like to ask all of you to tell us a bit about yourself and your rôle, but also about your journey before Zalando.
Anne: Hello, my name is Anne, I lead the Product Insights and Design team, and I also look after Digital Experience. And before Zalando, I bumped into design at the end of the 90s, when the internet became really, really big. And I got really excited about expressing ideas at scale. And it was interesting to see how in the beginning there was this thing called ‘web design’ and there were people pushing pixels from left to right. But over time design actually became something that would influence how information was structured, how organisations were structured, how business models were designed and in the end influencing company strategy. And that describes also in a nutshell, the journey that the design team at Zalando has been on.
Gerrit: Thanks, Anne. Yeah, I’ve been making things on the internet for close to 20 years. I didn’t know I was designing then. I learned that along the way, through engaging with the material, engaging with the social implications of new media, and of the internet. My past took me through various, different areas of that. I started out more technical, then ended up doing classical interaction design, and then was leaning more into the branding side of things. I would like to think that I’m in an equilibrium right now with my interests, where I can combine those aspects. And I am really interested in scaling design — empowering complex and large organisations to deliver amazing work at scale and to empower designers to make work that they can be proud of, that touches millions of people.
Timm: Okay, so I’m Timm Kekeritz. I’m a Director and working with so called pillars, this means the core teams of the Fashion Store, of the apps, and our website. My first job title actually was ‘Flash Designer’ and I was creating CD roms back then. But this was in advertising, and I quickly moved into more substantial design and understood how technology enables people to better understand things. For years I was working quite a lot in data visualisation and info visualisation. And in the end that’s still what we are engaging with here at Zalando where it’s very data-centric.
Shruti: Wonderful! Thank you, coming back to you, Anne. Zalando is known for its ambition, and has been steadily growing to be the leading platform for fashion and lifestyle in Europe. How does design support the company strategy?
Anne: By not just designing the surface of what customers see. Instead, going a lot deeper into understanding customer needs and solving customer problems. We do that by developing products through a process that moves from understanding what the problem is and whether it is worth solving, through to coming up with compelling solutions, and then moving into execution. But we always work backwards from the customer, which helps us deliver on our customer promises. But also in terms of our brand personality, and how we want the experience to feel and come across. And here again, I think designers really play a critical role, understanding how to actually take this principle-based approach, set the direction for the overall experience, and then really making sure it’s holistic, integrated and compelling.
And the exciting thing is, that we have some really hairy problems to solve that are both interesting from an emotional and psychological aspect, but also from a functional and data perspective. And then there’s our platform business model that brings a lot of beautiful complexity that designers like to tackle.
Shruti: Gerrit. Three weeks in, what attracted you to Zalando and to this role specifically?
Gerrit: Yes, it’s interesting actually. I’ve been observing, you know, what Anne just described from the inside and from the outside. This is actually my second time in Berlin. I was here for the first time 10 years ago when Zalando was just starting out. And over time I saw friends, I saw colleagues, who I respect immensely, join Zalando, stay here and thrive. And that told me something about the maturity of the organisation, and the magnitude of the challenge. And then I got to talk to a couple of other folks too, for example, product executives, and they confirmed that impression. I asked them, you know, how do you know if design is successful? How do you measure things, which is what a lot of companies struggle with. And the answer from multiple people was ‘We trust designers to do their job. We know it works’. And to me that speaks of a very, very high level of design maturity.
But at the same time, I think there’s also a lot of road ahead of us in Design. Zalando has nailed convenience. It’s a very smooth experience. But what I’m interested in is leaning more into the visual world of fashion and using that sort of rich fabric to build emotional connections with our users. It’s about long-term relationships that we’re thinking about. So how can we build things that really trigger feelings in people and become part of their lives? I’m hoping I can play a role in that, and I’m hoping that design systems can play a really, really crucial role in Zalando’s journey ahead.
Shruti: That’s, I think, a big theme for us. Timm, what are some of the exciting challenges the teams are working on currently?
Timm: There are so many challenges and all of them are exciting, but I’ll name a few. One is a constant challenge, which is around inspiration. Because fashion is not only a passion, it’s almost always sparked by inspiration. How can we bring more of that through on our platform? But I think the most exciting challenge involves the scale of the opportunity, and how we can aim to be relevant in so many people. Almost everyone, at least in Europe, is a potential customer for us. And fashion can have an important role in people’s lives. That could be for your next job interview, or you want to dress for big life events, but also small ones, like parties you want to dress up for. But also maybe you’re reinventing yourself and want to find inspiration, etc. for how to express that through fashion. So yeah, every day is a new challenge, super exciting.
Shruti: Anne, what do you enjoy most about your role?
Anne: What do I enjoy most? I mean there’s a lot! Obviously, working with the team and being inspired by each of them and their work. But I also love being at Zalando because I get a chance to learn every day. Although I’m already a little bit progressed in my career, I keep learning and I learn through collaboration, working with different teams across the company, different job families. And I also get to create and design the future we want to live in, and the organisation we want to be. And I think that’s a really rare opportunity, also looking again at the scale and size that Zalando already has.
Shruti: Timm, the best thing about your role?
Timm: I think working with such a big research and design team and having such a variety of talent there. Before I’ve been working with smaller design teams where it was often ‘Yeah, maybe read that talk or go to that conference. Maybe there is an expert in what you’re interested in’. And here, at Zalando, it’s always: ‘Yeah! In this other team there’s a Designer or Researcher who has experience with that…. Why don’t you team up!’ Seeing this working and helping people inspire each other, it’s super great. And that’s not limited to the design team. I think it’s also great to have experts on search and other kinds of hot technology topics in the company, and being able to grow myself and learn a lot, but also to pinpoint people.
Shruti: Yeah, I really agree with that. Gerrit, you talked about wanting to bring the fabric of fashion into the experience with Zalando. What’s the impact you’d like to make on Zalando and maybe on the design team as well?
Gerrit: Yeah, it’s a tough question to ask. I feel like I’m just fresh off the boat here, and I certainly didn’t arrive with a fully formed vision. So I really believe in listening and working with the teams and stakeholders to create this. But I can offer maybe some first impressions. And one goes back to the point made earlier about the opportunity to help Zalando realise the full potential of really engaging, expressive experiences. And I want to be able to create tools for all of you, for all of the design teams across the company, to create these really easily and smoothly. And that means new capabilities, such as motion video, 3D, VR… All of these things are already in trials in parts of the company. Really systematising it centrally and making them available across the organisation in a coordinated way. The system is in a good state but there’s so much more we can add to really empower individual designers.
And then I think another way I can contribute is connecting dots around the organisation. So this morning, I was part of a very interesting diversity and inclusion forum where folk from across different areas talked about different aspects of how they bring inclusion to life in terms of merchandise and employee experience. We actually have a road ahead of us despite early wins in the product experience itself. So it’s about making sure that everything that we do is accessible and inclusive, and that we leverage inclusive design methodologies to their fullest extent.
Shruti: Anne, how do you see Product Design at Zalando evolving in the next few years?
Anne: Yeah, first of all it’s going to evolve, that’s for sure in terms of size and impact, and we’re going to learn how to scale as a team. But also remaining very close as a community despite that, and supporting each other. And I also think in terms of how to evolve when it comes to design, I would point again at the topics that Gerrit mentioned around delivering on our commitments and diversity and inclusion — being a very inclusive team ourselves, but also ensuring that we are welcoming all our customers. And I’m excited to help deliver on our sustainability commitments. So, again, helping design to rethink our business models, how we enable circularity, how we engage customers throughout the entire relationship, extending the life of products, etc. So I think we have a huge role to play in really setting up the future of what Zalando wants to deliver. I’m looking forward to it!
Shruti: Timm, anything you’d like to add about how you see design evolving at Zalando?
Timm: I think especially at Zalando we’re really good at solving customer problems when it comes to buying fashion. And we’re really good at measuring that, understanding what the machine is. But I think we have to evolve to make it more fun. Because if you think about the pre-Covid life, like going on a physical shopping trip with friends is something that you mostly do because it’s fun, not just because you need the pants. So how to bring that to the digital world is I think one of the questions that we want to answer and that I’m very excited about.
Shruti: Who doesn’t like fun?