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The Challenge

Expand Zalando’s human-centered design capability.

The Outcome

The Studio, a jointly run IDEO/Zalando innovation lab that prototypes and builds digital products.

Fashion thrives on reinventing itself every season. Now, digital is reinventing fashion. E-commerce has reshaped the boutique shopping experience, street-style snaps grace every fashion glossy, and social media has democratized the once-exclusive catwalk show.

Amidst this furious whirl of change, the fashion platform Zalando, founded in 2008, has grown to become one of Europe’s biggest and fastest-growing tech companies. Headcount is about 12,000 and revenues hit €3.639 billion in 2016, with growth of 23 percent from the year before.

Facing increasing competition from fashion brands’ e-commerce efforts and aggregators, Zalando’s co-founder and CEO Robert Gentz approached IDEO in 2014 for a project to explore the future of the Zalando Fashion Store. Inspired by that experience, and the design principles and opportunity areas that emerged, Gentz saw an opportunity to deepen the relationship with IDEO and to apply the design process to core aspects of the business and culture, connecting smart strategies to designing and developing new products.

Zalando New 1

Building design thinking capabilities within the company, Gentz realized, would allow Zalando to make systemic shifts in the business, like building better experiences for customers, and balancing operational excellence and execution with innovation.

To this end, Gentz asked IDEO to set up an internal team comprised of designers and researchers from IDEO and Zalando in its Berlin headquarters. The Studio, as it’s called, is tasked with designing and building new products and services, with the ambition of evolving Zalando from a fashion e-tailer to a platform that can power a digital transformation for the entire fashion ecosystem.

In the two years since The Studio launched, the team has helped to build up new value propositions and experiences through a series of digital prototypes. They designed things like Seen At, a mobile app that allows members to upload street style photos, and helped define Collabary, a digital tool that connects online fashion influencers with brands, so they can work together to create, for example, social content that will reach the right audience. They also designed other experiments, like exploring whether customers wanted to pick up purchases from their local store. Designing and prototyping these constant iterations showed Zalando staff that exercising deep empathy and discovering customer insights can unlock new opportunities across different units. The prototypes allowed cross-disciplinary teams to align on joint goals, defining the vision and purpose of new value propositions, identifying priorities, and being able to make faster decisions.

Zalando New App

Studio as Learning Lab

Just as important as the projects it undertakes for the business is The Studio’s role as a hub, keeping the organization customer-centered, product-oriented, innovative, and nimble. As such, every engagement aims to build and scale these capabilities in Zalando, says Philipp Erler, SVP of Technology. “The Studio focuses on both elevating the role of design within Zalando and on building bridges between strategy and product development,” he said.

As part of The Studio’s mandate, Zalando employees from across business units cycle into The Studio alongside IDEO designers in order to solve a specific challenge. They’re charged with integrating what they create into their day jobs, and ensuring it’s implemented. In doing so, they’re The Studio’s ambassadors, spreading its ethos and methods—experimentation, prototyping, and storytelling.

“We are very excited by this journey, and hope to see The Studio's human-centered design culture catch on with many other teams,” Erler said.