A peek at Roku’s “mild to wild” design strategy

Interaction designer Jana Kovacevic shares how Roku generates novel design ideas.

A peek at Roku’s “mild to wild” design strategy
[Photo: courtesy Jana Kovacevic]

Jana Kovacevic is an interaction design manager at Roku. She spoke to Doreen Lorenzo for Designing Women, a series of interviews with brilliant women in the design industry.


Doreen Lorenzo: When did you find you wanted to pursue design as a career?

Jana Kovacevic: Out of college I started working as a software engineer. I was developing apps and working with designers. Then, pretty quickly into my career as an engineer, I discovered that I loved working with the designers, and I found my passion was more on the creative side. And that actually matched with my academic background, which was a mix of cognitive science and computer science. So I made a transition into the design organization and never looked back.

DL: What was it like to make that leap?

JK: I was working as an engineer on a project that was highly visual and consumer-facing. I did a good job on the project as an engineer, but I envied the designer’s job the entire time. And at my first one-on-one with my manager that month, I said, “I don’t like what I’m doing, and I would like to consider transitioning to another team.” Now looking back, I was young and had no idea what his reaction was going to be. I thought it might be, “What do you mean you don’t like your job?” But that was not his reaction at all. He was actually very receptive. We talked about why I didn’t like it. I basically said, “Look, this was something I thought I would like. I thought I would go down the path of getting my master’s in engineering, and I am actually not enjoying it, and I would like to try something else.” And so having been at a big company—another positive for me—that decision was made quickly. We put in the transition plan, and within a couple months I was on the other side, working with the same people, just designing for the engineers.

DL: Was it scary, or did you feel like you’d come home?

JK: I felt like it was my true calling—like I needed to do that, or else I would have been probably out of the tech industry. That’s how much I didn’t enjoy being a developer. I love my developers, by the way. We get along great. It’s just it’s not for me.


DL: How did you end up at Roku?

JK: When I started as an interaction designer, I was actually a reference for a friend who was a software developer. So the recruiter called me to speak about him, and once I gave my good reference, she said, “We should talk about you and if you’re interested in joining Roku.” I was not looking at the time and was a bit surprised. But I talked to the team and I loved what they had to offer. It was a very small company at the time; I was one of two designers. It’s been a great experience during my seven years here.

[Photo: Roku]

DL: What’s the philosophy of design at Roku?

JK: Our goal here at Roku is to power every TV in the world. We aim to provide the best entertainment experience for our customers. How we do that is by understanding how our customers behave. We know that TV is very much a community device that often is placed in the living room where family or roommates or a group of people watch it. We know it’s a lean-back experience—customers come home, they want to relax, they want to kick back and enjoy. They don’t want to sit in front of the TV and solve problems. The design team’s goal is to put forward the best effortless, fun user experience that our customers don’t have to think twice about. We use the term “invisible UI,” meaning that the UI should never get in the way. You should be able to just pick up the remote, look for your show, get there quickly, and start enjoying.
Another thing that we do is make sure our UI is designed in such a way that even if a user makes a mistake, we always offer them a path forward. A customer should never feel like they’ve hit a dead end and don’t know where to go. That’s one of the big principles we live by. When we create simple, fun, effortless experiences that are easy to learn, then our customers enjoy the products.

DL: What does design mean to you today? Has it changed in the time that you’ve been involved?

JK: Design is just part of our lives today. While 15 years ago the design community was the only one discussing design, today you can hear folks on the street or in coffee shops discussing how much they love an app or a gadget they got, and how easy it is to use, and how they would recommend it to a friend. All of that points to good design, and shows that people really appreciate well-designed products.


DL: Do you consider yourself a creative person?

JK: I do consider myself creative. That was why I switched out of engineering. Not to say that engineering is not creative—by far the best ideas often come from engineers. But creativity is subjective. If you ask me, I would say I’m a creative type. I like to paint. I build Legos with my kids. I put experiments with circuit boards together and then watch people react to what the experiment does. It’s great to see reactions to creative work, whatever the creativity may be.

DL: What are some of the hard lessons learned?

JK: When an opportunity presents itself, you should take it. Take the opportunity and ask questions later. I hesitated stepping into a leadership role at work because I had many questions. Can I start a family? What can I do after I have children? How can I balance work and life and family? Those are the questions I’ve struggled with, and they held me back from moving forward years ago. And then finally one day I decided, look at least I can try. The worst that can happen is you can’t do it all. But then I finally said “yes” and I moved into this role. It’s been interesting balancing work and family, and I don’t regret one bit moving forward with it. So I wouldn’t say it’s a necessarily hard lesson; it’s just I wish I realized it sooner.

DL: How do you get people to come up with their best ideas at work?

JK: I ask designers to come to the design review with usually three ideas, sometimes five—here at Roku we call it “mild to wild”—and they come up with pros and cons for every single one of those. They talk about them and build up the story. Then we weigh the options. Through the entire process, we involve the product management and engineering and other stakeholders, because we don’t operate in a vacuum. We work closely with other functional teams. For them to see the designs and design process is very important, because then they understand where we’re coming from. It’s important to understand where everybody stands, what they like, what they don’t like, how it impacts their business unit. It creates a more effective design review when nobody at the table is surprised.


DL: Where do you find creative inspiration as a designer?

JK: Inspiration is everywhere. Design is all around us—I look at shelves at the store and how they’re organized, card readers or the setup of Wi-Fi networks in hotels, supermarket checkout lines and how customers use the self-checkout. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve noticed little things like doorknobs in offices—sometimes I can’t tell if it’s push or pull, there’s no sign. All those things inspire me. The attention that I pay to the detail of small things causes me to think about our product and how to simplify it—how to make it easy for somebody who is not a designer or an engineer. That simplicity rolls back into what is important to Roku.


About the author

Doreen Lorenzo is Assistant Dean at the School of Design and Creative Technologies, and Founding Director of the Center for Integrated Design, both at The University of Texas at Austin.