If you build a world-class design culture, world-class designers will come. Just ask Byron Gronseth, Director of Product Design for Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd, who’s been tasked with building a design team in Miami, Florida.
South Florida has not always been a destination for product design opportunities, but Royal Caribbean breaks the mold. The 50-year Miami native corporation’s big, graphic presence on local billboards, and blossoming digital design organization are turning Miami into a new hotspot for design talent.
Gronseth is helming a Miami-based, in-house crew of digital experience designers—the first team of its kind at Royal Caribbean. They’re setting the digital design vision, building trust with senior leaders, and working with data scientists to design more delightful, efficient, inclusive experiences for all guests.
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We sat down with Byron to talk about how he competes for experienced designers in Miami, Florida.
Inside Design: What was it like for you, moving out of Seattle and hunting for UX designers in Miami?
Gronseth: There was a sentiment in the market when I arrived that you couldn’t find good design talent in Miami. Royal Caribbean has proven those people wrong.
We have incredible designers, folks who were really amped up about the challenge—people who bring really solid UX and visual design thinking to our company. It’s impressive. I love our team so much.
I want to see us as a beacon to folks interested in product design, as a place where they can sandbox and play. We’re tackling really interesting challenges that you can’t get anywhere else. And we’ve got great people who, themselves, are magnets. In another six months we could be a new center of gravity. It’s fun. It’s cruising. It’s vacation. It’s meaningful. And it gets people excited.
Inside Design: How do you find experienced mobile UX designers so far from the usual hubs?
My strategy is to rely on other people’s networks—the people I hire, my managers.
“I want to see us as a beacon to folks interested in product design, as a place where they can sandbox and play. “
The first designer I hired was a recommendation from a friend in Seattle. That was a super lucky connection. The next was someone who was recommended from our first designer. Super lucky. Then the next hire was someone who was moving back to the area. She’d been working in Chicago, and wanted to come home to Florida and put down roots. That became a theme.
We have a fair number of designers—a dozen or so—who grew up here. Their families are here. Because Miami didn’t have a strong agency or design scene, they went elsewhere, to New York, Berlin, Chicago. They got the skills, understood the constraints, and worked at serious agencies and companies with real problems to solve.
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Then they decided they wanted to start families of their own. We have a predominantly Latinx team with strong ties. They want to be here in Miami, close to family. But they don’t know how they can make that move back, because at first glance there aren’t any jobs in the mobile tech space like they’d find in New York.
And then here I am with a flashlight saying, “Come over here!”
Inside Design: How would you describe Miami UX culture at Royal Caribbean?
The music is the first thing you notice. The energy is different. There’s dancing all the time, and I’ve never seen that at work before. The music, the flavor, the food, rallying around the coffee scene. The coffee scene is very different here in Miami, six or seven different coffees, cafecito, cortadito, all very shareable. Usually a cafecito is one cup, and you get thimbles and share it, and pour it at three o’clock at the port.
There’s this community happening. It’s not just people with headphones sitting at their screen.
And it’s starting to spread now. When I first started hiring in Miami and hearing these designers’ stories, it started clicking into place. What if we could make Miami a place where design happens? What if Royal Carribean is the center of it? What if we created a center of gravity that attracted world-class talent to create a world-class set of products?
We just helped 500 Startups by sending our designers out to mentor product folks and coach them on how to infuse design thinking into their work. We’re hosting Dribbble meetups. Next month there’s a panel, where all our managers are leading a design at scale session. We’ve started recording podcasts, really rough so far, but it’s happening.
We’re starting to step into the light a little bit. It’s starting to become that beacon I hoped it would be. I don’t feel so crazy anymore for hoping.
Inside Design: Now that you’re two years in, how is the team progressing?
So far we have seven in-house designers and 25 contractors, 32 total. We lean on agencies too, but we’ve trimmed back the agency work quite a bit. We started with nothing and raced ahead with very little.
We’ve made a lot of progress as an organization. We have processes now. We have design reviews, working on a design system, doing massive design audits and looking at how to bake in accessibility standards. We’re here in the background creating plumbing and ventilation, while people are trying to build buildings on top of it at the same time.
“What if we could make Miami a place where design happens? What if Royal Carribean is the center of it? What if we created a center of gravity that attracted world-class talent to create a world-class set of products? “
We’re taking the steps to make sure we’re always compliant, always trying to exceed expectations. We’ve been moving so fast, but now we’ve done the extra homework to try to get ahead of things.
Inside Design: How does your experience pitching ideas to execs at Disney feed into your team’s work at Royal Caribbean?
Here we have two main types of design pitches to execs.
The most common presentation is to pitch new digital design ideas. For those I let the designers on my team lead the charge, pitching straight to the boss, and the boss’s boss.
They come up with the narrative on their own. I might poke it and massage it, but they’re ultimately doing it themselves.
“My main job in all this is to build good relationships between the digital teams, the key stakeholders, and design. I’m a consensus-builder.”
We don’t do this for iterative design, because that story is already baked. But every time we venture into new territory, we like to craft a model around that and bring the senior leaders directly into the experience.
The format is usually in a mix of Keynote or Google Slides and an InVision Prototype. If they need to show interactions, they mock up screens in InVision and click through them in the presentation. They’ll even put a phone in a VP’s hand and walk them through the key moments.
The other type of pitch is a much bigger production. I get a SWAT team of designers together—a couple of in-house designers, and a couple from a small agency—and we work with senior execs to capture the range and scope of the idea and bring it to life.
We focus on data, specifically using data to increase guest satisfaction, and exploring how we can use AI to move business forward. We broke it into different lenses, and looked at what happens in the back of the house, hotel ops, how we’re optimizing for things like room inventory.
For example, on an Alaska cruise, there’s a moment when you’re coming up on a glacier on the starboard side. You know everyone on board will be moving to that side of the ship to see it. So we find ways to optimize for that. We think through what we’re selling at that moment, ensure proper venues are available to guests, and plan intentionally for exactly where staff should be, where the customers will be, and even what canapes they’ll want to eat.
Inside Design: How did you get to a place where other teams and leaders wanted to partner with the UX team on such broad initiatives?
It helps that our leaders on the digital team come from design backgrounds. They understand the power of storytelling. So when they have something to articulate from the data, they’ll bring my team in. They say, “I can’t just have accountants on this.” They know they need both the storytelling ability and the strategic ability, working together to whiteboard it all out, and figure out how to visualize it in a way people can latch onto. It was my SVP and VP who built that culture and injected that kind of thinking.
“We’re starting to step into the light a little bit. It’s starting to become that beacon I hoped it would be. I don’t feel so crazy anymore for hoping.”
All of these folks are used to collaborating solely with marketing teams, not product-building teams. So that’s the level of sizzle we have to deliver as a design team. I believe our marketing teams are the best I’ve ever seen. They bring a perspective to the table that isn’t the same as what we bring. That’s the type of thinking I got to see firsthand at Disney—how you can move the needle if you have the right story, plus data.
My main job in all this is to build good relationships between the digital teams, the key stakeholders, and design. I’m a consensus builder. I need to do the daily work of going to everyone individually, talking to them one-on-one and understanding their needs. In the game of design, you’ve got to be a diplomat. Part of being a good diplomat is knowing when to parlay, versus when to ride in on a dragon and knock the walls down.