It’s not unusual to come home from a once-in-a-lifetime trip—say, a six-month expedition hiking across Spain with your father—with a new perspective on your career. But Marisa Gallagher, who now heads up the digital design and user experience team for Amazon Music, didn’t have the usual revelation. A creative designer who sometimes refers to herself as a “craftsperson,” Gallagher decided to branch out from the creative side and embrace business. Her position now is fantastically tricky: She has to construct a consistent experience across a wide variety of devices, from watches to televisions, some of which are made by her company and some of which are not, in an already-crowded product category.
But her dual background in both the design side and the business side of things—thanks to a late-in-life MBA at the University of California, Berkeley—has allowed her to bridge what often seems an impassable ravine between those two communities. And her success should serve as a beacon to others: It’s both important and fantastically valuable to understand and be able to communicate with both creators and sellers.
Marisa Gallagher, Amazon Music's Digital Design and User Experience Lead
Tell me about yourself! How did you end up taking a job running design for Amazon Music in June of 2015?
I grew up all around the country, was born in Nevada and lived in Idaho, Missouri, New Jersey, and California. During that time I was a real media junkie: I watched a lot of TV, probably too much TV, took a lot of photographs, was really arts-and-craftsy. As I got into college I studied film and anthropology, as well as ran the campus radio station.
When I look back on it, media and anthropology informed what I do today. When I was studying them people thought I was going to be with a tribe in Africa for ten years, doing a bad [documentary] on Betacam.
When I came out of school, the Internet was going crazy, and I worked at a couple of startups in the Bay Area, where my family ended up. I got into building products and, over the course of ten years, worked my way up to running the UX practice and driving creative strategy.
Then I got a business degree and went to CNN for three-and-a-half years. I helped them transform from a site that was just barely together to one that was built on a completely revamped platform and was responsive, API-driven. We built like 22 apps. Then I decided to take a sabbatical after that.
Why take a sabbatical? How did that help you in your career?
After being in the business for over 15 years, and having done a lot of different types of media, I wanted to take a step back and really see where the industry was going. My dad is in a good place where he's really healthy, and he wanted to go on this hike across Spain—there's a big walk [the Camino de Santiago], about 500 miles, and we did about 325 of it. I was like, I'm in the right place where I can take a break and see what I can see. And to do that, in a place where I'm more disconnected, sort of thinking about different things, about life, a little bit—that was an amazing opportunity.
Coming back from that, I did want to see that advertising side, and think about how you get people to these experiences. I don't think product people always think enough about that. They just think, ‘we built this awesome thing, and now we're done.’
I came away with a real sense of the passion I have for building products, and building for people. Because that was something I craved. I love that kind of strategic thinking. Design is this amazing fulcrum point where you can have a big vision and also implement and execute it. There's something really clear and tangible about that. The efficient part of my mind loves that.
It seems like the sabbatical really created a desire to learn more about the business side of things.
It did! I think that design has already been in the strategic conversation at some places, but as an entire discipline it's just knocking at that door. I'm excited for this next wave where designers have that view of it.
There’s often a divide between the business side and the creative side at companies. You have a background in both now. How important is that?
It helps a ton. [My business background] keeps me from getting too precious about things, keeps me out of the desert. I think we've all been there as practitioners and craftspeople where we can just get lost in our own ideas for a little while, and business is good in that it can provide that frame: What am I doing? What's the point? Is it strategically valuable? Is it going to make the difference I want it to make?
I think business learns a lot from design's empathy, from design being able to consolidate a bunch of ideas without it being a mess. A good designer can coalesce things and create a gestalt that is so much better than the parts. That’s really where design should be leading these strategic conversations and should have a bigger voice.
The interface of a music service seems like an incredibly difficult thing to design. How do you create something that shows off all the features people might use while still being fast and easy enough for everyone from your tech-genius niece to your tech-fearful grandfather to figure out?
What we have in our favor is that we did a lot of ethnographic research, and we've thought about the role of music in people's lives, especially tracking them in terms of day and week, and seeing how music interests change. When you wake up there are certain types of music you want to hear, and when you're on your commute, or at the gym, or at night cooking with your family, you go into a different mode. Knowing that helps you reduce the complexity; you don't have to show everything at all points.
We also think about it as a hybrid of a media experience, so you would have a starting point. That's the idea with the home screen or hub. It's based on behavior. People want to know what's popular in the zeitgeist, and then they want to see what they listened to last. People get into these ruts, which is pretty normal, for listening behavior. So we have a lot of recommendations, like you don't like this but you want something similar, and we go out in concentric circles from that. That universal versus personal perspective is great.
Has it been a struggle to create a consistent aesthetic and functionality across a wide range of devices, from watches to TVs, Apple to Android, third-party to in-house Amazon hardware?
It’s a tricky piece. Our team has more than nine platforms that we’re going after. What we try to do is think about a pattern library and a style guide that can flow across platforms, and that style guide is really steep in design culture at Amazon—Ember fonts, for example—to help reinforce and echo, as it were, how Amazon design is evolving. Yet we do want to differentiate on those platforms too. I think 80 to 85 percent of the experiences are consistent, and then we try to differentiate in that 15 percent. In iOS there are some unique things you can do with navigation, whereas in Android there are some really cool integrations with Android Auto and other features like SD card support.
On our TV platform, we have some integration with that team so we know where things are going and that lets us do things a little differently. With Echo, we can do some cool innovation. We know how it works and actually took over some of the design work for their music integration. That lets us think about how to evolve voice in a cool way. I don’t think we’ve perfected it, but we’re trying to get to that blend of a cohesive design language and then doubling down on innovations where we can.
You got your MBA later in life. How was that experience?
I would recommend it. Getting it later in life was helpful because I'd had enough life experience to have examples. The school I went to was very much case-study-based, and my experience as a consultant was very similar to that—you’re always kind of getting these briefs and responding to them. That experience helped things seem a little less foreign than if I'd gone earlier.
The MBA program helped me with my future career. If a designer is able to translate something like a creative brief into a business brief, that gives you a huge leg up. It's a craft, at that point, in that you're learning how to speak with the right language, how to read financial statements, how to speak up in ways that ensure you'll be heard. Getting that business background takes some time, and it can be painful, but it definitely is worthwhile.
Dan Nosowitz is a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist based who has previously written for Atlas Obscura, the New York Times Magazine, Modern Farmer, The Awl, New York Magazine, Popular Science, Fast Company, and others. You can follow him on twitter or visit his website.