An interview with Jose Alves, creative director for Sky UK
Read more about what Jose Alves has to say.
So, if you could begin with telling us a bit about yourself!
"I studied in Lisbon and worked there for a couple of years, mostly doing graphic design, but my career in digital started when I moved to the UK 11 years ago. I joined the BBC as an Interaction Designer and had a brief stint at Skype for about 1 year. I then started freelancing, and worked for a few different companies doing a real mix of work from design agencies like Method, R/GA, Fjord and Schematic, to working in-house for companies such as YouView, Intel and Sky. The first time I joined Sky was in 2013 as a contractor to work on Sky Q, with a team of 4 designers. It wasn’t called Sky Q then as it was still at the beginning phases, if you consider developers and product people there were about 40-50 of us working on it, whereas now it’s in more than 1 million homes. I stayed at Sky as a contractor until just before product launch, but left to join a design agency for a year called Ostmodern as a UX director. Finally, re-joined Sky as a contractor first until I started full time as a Creative Director."
What is it like being a Creative Director of Sky?
"I work in one of the product design teams at Sky UK. The product portfolio that our team is responsible for includes Sky Plus which is the old setup box product line, Sky Q, Sky Go, Sky Store, Sky Cinema, Sky Kids and the recently launched Sky VR.
In terms of my direct responsibilities, I manage and set the creative direction for a multi-disciplinary sub team that sits in the larger design and research engineering team, which is divided into four sub teams. My team (consumer electronics) are responsible for mobile and desktop products such as phone apps, tablet apps, desktop apps but also responsive websites like Sky store. Another team is the TV team who are responsible for the design for our set-top box products, TV apps and consoles. Another team is the industrial design team who are responsible for the design of physical artefacts such as the remote control, the set-top boxes, routers and recently launched a sound box to compliment the TV experience. Finally, we have an innovation team that explores blue sky ideas and emerging technology that may impact our products in the next 2 to 5 years.
My day-to-day ranges, but these days I spend less of my time crafting wireframes or pixel perfect layouts, and more of my time helping my team to run efficiently and influencing people to do the right thing. Not so much solving problems, but framing those problems in a simple and digestible way for my team to solve. Working together with my team and supporting them when needed."
How much have things changed since you joined Sky?
"So originally I joined to work on the project which became Sky Q. The project was very confidential and challenging. From a blank canvas to becoming the main product line that is available today for all of our customers. For me it has changed a lot, because month after month new people had started to be introduced to the product team, seeing it grow from a fragile concept to a robust finished product.
More recently Sky acquired Sky Germany and Italy which changed our processes and engagement models in a different way, having to work with remote product teams and different roadmaps in Europe, how things align together and the complexity just tripled; as then you must start considering for example different commercial, legal and product requirements for different countries."
Is there much collaboration between technical and non-technical people?
"Sky is a big company and different teams are structured in different ways. Product, design and research engineering teams are centralised, whereas development teams have individual teams who focus on TV, Android, iOS, Windows, etc. That means, as designers we must juggle a few products at the same time, so we engage with many different teams and ways of working. The model of engagement and process changes, but collaboration is very much part of our culture here at Sky. You have projects that run in a more traditional and waterfall way, but others are more agile and more collaboration is required to work on solutions together between designers and developers."
So, you spoke at our SODA social event on Product Design Stories – Fails and Wins and shared with us lessons you have learnt from product conception to launch and beyond during your time at Sky. For those who didn’t make this could you give an overview of the evening?
"Me and Matt did a double act and made the presentation together, we spoke about when I joined Sky in 2013, Matt joined a couple of months after me and he is now leading the TV design team. The topic focus was on Sky Q, specifically about the TV experience and we told the story from the beginning until launch. From having a small team, some of the learnings in the early days, the failings, the rounds of testing and prototyping we have done to refine the interaction model, followed by many hours of pixel pushing the UI and applying the right brand. A completely new opportunity to work on a unique design system and technical platform. With these different aspects affecting one another, the UI would influence the way the buttons would be laid out on the remote and vice versa. This for me has been a unique challenge as usually when you create an digital application you must either design around a chrome or need follow specific guidelines, whereas with this project you had an empty canvas and the freedom, not only to define the UI but the technical platform and industrial design, which is so distinct."
What is the most important thing we should remember about your presentation?
"I think the last few slides which summarised our learnings in the last 4 years, the key points I’d say were about the importance of hiring well, aligning everyone behind the same problem and knowing when to say no as you will have to compromise in a few things along the way.
Getting the right people to do the right job was really important. Generalists in the beginning, but when you need optimisation, specialists were invaluable.
Agreeing on the problem before starting to work on the solution, because we created more solutions that needed to help defining product requirements. This created a lot of waste and at times frustration amongst the team. All teams need to be solving the same problem together.
When you’re giving a blank piece of paper it’s hard to start, like where are you going to put the menu or do I even need a menu? These questions are abstract and it’s hard to start. Once have some basic key templates that will become much easier and tangible for people to give feedback. You have to be very diligent protecting the solution to ensure that after several years the design system still makes sense, as with any product some compromises and exceptions must be made. When I look back, I think we still have a product that is faithful to the original design vision."
Where do you go for your creative inspiration?
"Looking at a couple of different things, such as user behaviour which isn’t just what users are currently doing with your product, because their behaviour will be dictated by what they are trying to uncover, their deeper needs. Analysing your competitors, but not letting them define you is a good way to understand how they solved similar problems to yours, how not to make the same mistakes and accelerate your product thinking. And finally, looking at emerging technology and what opportunities might be created and facilitated by it."
How do you come up with new ideas such as the voice activated remote control?
"With voice search, I think we were a bit late to the party with Amazon, Apple and Google assistant launching their software/hardware before us. I think we had a little bit of a catch-up to do, but our execution is slightly different. We just looked at that as an interesting opportunity, but it’s still early days for us."
Tell us about some brands you admire. What makes them stand out?
"Leap motion is developing some interesting technology in VR/AR space and around gestures tracking. Tesla went from car manufacturing to solar energy, which now seems obvious but it was such a fresh move. From an UI perspective, I still find Model 3’s dashboard a bit weird, but there’s definitely something there. City Mapper because it just makes my life easier and found their popup bus routes in London an interesting idea."
What would be the next step for you? You know, 5 to 10 years. What would you like to see yourself doing creatively?
"Since the beginning of last year, we’ve not only been operating in the UK but we are operating in Italy, Austria and Germany, which is a very interesting challenge of how we are going to launch our products into those markets. Dealing with the challenges and complexities of working with remote teams and different set requirements.
When I worked at Skype, it was a truly global product with very little local differences, whereas for Sky the product is still a bit fragmented across the different countries and we are currently working hard to align the experience, while acknowledging differences.
Another area of interest for me is innovation in TV interfaces and consumption contexts. Looking at what is the next generation of interface design outside the screens we are used to, for example augmented experiences and voice control. With so many different possible applications such as self-driving cars, user recognition and IoT software, there is scope for years."
For anyone wanting to work with Sky… What kind of advice would you give them to work with you?
"I think they need to be someone who has an open mind to collaborate and be willing to learn. There is not a specific formula or process that we apply to everything but it needs to be about doing what’s right, without shortcuts and of course be a team player."