December 31, 2007, 12:00 AM

Designing the Future

In Debbie Kristofferson, Wal-Mart finds a TV star who has crafted the creative side and user experience of

Career-changing phone calls come when you least expect them-like the call Debbie Kristofferson got from e-retailer when she was at the park with the kids.

It was 1999, the height of the dot-com frenzy, and Kristofferson had taken some time off to be with her two young children after a stint at Excite, an early competitor of Yahoo. Her online odyssey began in the early 1990s, when she worked as a producer at The Discovery Channel. Her science show, Next Step, had given her a chance to do TV segments describing the intriguing development of the Internet. She soon found herself providing supplementary material on the show’s topics for Discovery’s web site, a pioneer in the art of using Internet content to enhance traditional media. The web ensnared her.

After The Discovery Channel, Kristofferson worked for two years as executive producer at Third Age, a web portal for people heading into retirement. She then moved to Excite, where CEO George Bell, another alum of television, hired her to structure the site into a coherent network of services to engender user loyalty.

Learning curve

“It was a pretty interesting and intense period,” she says. “There was a huge learning curve, and we were trying to maintain a business in a landscape that included Yahoo, MSN and AOL-and Google coming up.” She handled two pregnancies and a horrendous Bay Area commute while there, and she was ready to take it easy for a bit.

But during that fateful park visit, the first one she’d had a chance to take since starting her break, one of her former Excite employees called from in Brisbane, Calif. They needed an executive producer. Was Debbie interested?

Most people wouldn’t say no to Wal-Mart without at least chatting. During their chat, Kristofferson “fell in love” with the team and the opportunity. She’s been there since 2000, and was promoted to vice president of creative and user experience in 2006.

She manages 75 people, including producers, information architects, interface designers, writers and photographers. She also oversees development for’s catalog and services, including the online photo center, digital download service, gift registry, search, cart and checkout. She’s responsible for everything about the look and feel of the site: what goes on the tabs, what’s in each navigation bar, how the product descriptions are set up, how and where rich media is used, which merchandise categories have customer reviews-basically everything that determines whether a customer shops happily at or abandons his cart to visit or or any of a host of other hot retail sites.

It’s been quite a roller-coaster. “I wasn’t there for the ‘let’s build it’ period, but there were plenty of start-up phases where we were optimizing our business model and learning how to support it effectively and integrate with the Wal-Mart stores and get our hands around what the customer needs,” she says.

From’s point of view, Kristofferson has done a great job of figuring things out. “Debbie’s unique talent and expertise in user interface consistently generates meaningful experiences for our online customers, and simultaneously drives successful brand and sales-impacting activities for our online business,” says Cathy Halligan,’s chief marketing officer. “Her ability to lead a thriving creative team produces a material impact on the Wal-Mart brand, and significantly contributes to’s consistent sales growth.” Halligan says that’s sales are growing at two to three times the industry average.

Kristofferson’s lack of retail experience set her apart, but not in a negative way, she says. As an enthusiastic shopper, she brought a consumer’s point of view to her analysis, and the site’s merchandising mission sank in quickly once she was at her new post. “How lucky am I to have a ringside seat to learn about merchandising and retail from Wal-Mart?” she asks rhetorically.

Creative chops

A brand-new incarnation of that debuted in October 2006 was Kristofferson’s biggest opportunity yet to demonstrate her creative chops. She oversaw the redesign of 2 million pages, and every aspect of the site was rethought. Browse-to-checkout was stripped down to four clicks, images became larger and enhanced with rich media features, apparel and home furnishings were arranged into “collections” in a way that’s difficult to duplicate at a Wal-Mart store, and customers have new information resources, including CNET product buying guides and customer reviews.

Developing content for a retail site is philosophically different from producing a television show, or even a content-oriented site, where the content and its creators are the stars of the show. In retail, the merchandise and the merchandising team are the stars, and the web team’s function is to support them any way it can. Nonetheless, her TV experience is invaluable, Kristofferson says. “If you can’t grab and maintain someone’s attention, you can’t get ratings and you’re out of business. Having content brought to life in a way that meets viewer needs is a muscle that TV builds over and over again.”

Moreover, the creative types under her supervision remind her strongly of her TV days. “I like overseeing interesting people who bring interesting skill sets to the table,” she says. The redesign brought her a new appreciation of how each person contributes to the whole-not just those on her own team, but throughout the company. “If I’m managing the user experience team, we’re accountable for the success of the launch,” she says. “But there are things outside of my domain that need to be done, too, and it was important for me to understand that critical path. I came out of it with more appreciation for the full orchestra.”

The redesign had several objectives: to make the customer’s experience cleaner and easier, to tell more compelling stories about each item, and to strengthen the brand tie-in between and Wal-Mart stores. “We were being more thoughtful about the role of each level of page, whether it was the home page, a department or a product page,” Kristofferson says. “Then we edited out the things that didn’t add the value they should.”

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