Last month, Walmart unveiled a new website that is surprisingly good–one that feels like an antidote to Amazon with a local lifestyle brand. This month, Walmart introduces a new head of design, Valerie Casey. She’s tasked with leading the company’s next big step into the future: merging Walmart’s thousands of stores, dozens of apps, and website into one seamless experience. And she’s coming in at the highest role a designer has ever taken at Walmart–as an officer.
Before Walmart, Casey’s two-decade career included senior level positions at design consultancies Frog, Ideo, and Pentagram; founding The Designers Accord to promote positive social and environmental change in the design industry; running the Samsung NEXT product accelerator; and, most recently, consulting on two vastly different projects. In one, she helped bring internet to rural villages with Mozilla. In the other, she helped imagine the future of augmented reality at Magic Leap.
Her background spans both the social and the corporate spheres, which could make her the perfect candidate for her mission at Walmart–of wanting to democratize design. Walmart stores tend to serve a demographic that Silicon Valley often overlooks, with its emphasis on slick experiences for well-heeled city dwellers. At Walmart, Casey sees an opportunity to bring good design to the masses.
After meeting Walmart leadership at a World Economic Forum event, Casey called her friend, then Walmart head of design Dan Makoski. “I said Dan, I think something is there,” she recounts, musing on Walmart’s potential. “Forty-eight hours later, I was on the ground in Bentonville [Arkansas] at our headquarters, working with the team.” (Walmart declined to share Makoski’s latest plans, and we couldn’t reach him in time for publication.)
Casey was attracted to the sheer scale and agility of the organization. Walmart has 120 apps and services for its employees alone, to manage all sorts of logistics from shipping to stocking shelves. That means design at Walmart faces its employees as much, if not more, than its customers. “The scope of it was staggering,” says Casey. “I just fell in love with it.” Six months later, she’s leading design at the company.
Now, Casey is looking at Walmart’s 11,700 stores worldwide, which employ 2.5 million associates and see 270 million customers a week, and planning out how that experience can be modernized in not just a competitive way with companies like Amazon, but in a human-centric way that leverages technology without taking our soul.
Walmart has not been known as a design-centric institution. Whereas Target has the market cornered on styled brands, and Amazon on quick-ship service, Walmart has been known as a cost-cutting efficiency machine. But for the last two years, the company has been on a spending spree to fill its its gaps, spending $3.3 billion on the digital store Jet, along with buying the last-mile delivery service Parcel and the millennial bait brand Bonobos, among many others. That’s been the public side of the conversation. The private side is what’s happening inside Walmart to shift its retail approach, which, frankly, none of us know much about.
“For me, the most interesting part of this role is bridging stores and digital, designing new experiences and services. This is new territory–actually having a perfectly seamless experience as a user, beginning online or an app, through mobile or ambient computing for voice, and having a continuous experience all through the store and delivery. This is a designer’s nirvana,” says Casey. “Maybe we want those experiences to be invisible, so people can get on with their lives. A lot of the time in tech, we create amazing moments but they consume you in a way that removes you a bit from attending to your family life, friends, and community.”
Casey’s old colleagues at Frog and Ideo have been envisioning sweeping redesigns to retail and healthcare that make purchases automatic and service personalized at all moments. Projects like Disney MagicBands attempted to make a physical environment seamlessly smart alongside a digital back end with mixed success. But now, Casey says, that the whole technological infrastructure–from smartphones, to the internet, to augmented reality–is actually mature enough to bring these theories to fruition at scale. At Walmart, she cannot imagine a more important job. “We have this great upswing from the redesign of the website, making Walmart feel contemporary and fresh,” she says. But she sees even more potential in “bringing a great deal of dignity to the people typically underserved in tech.”