Interview with Brandon McNeely
Where are you located?
A beautiful tree-filled neighborhood in Philadelphia, PA, USA.
Where do you work?
Backe, we’re a relationship-centered brand communications agency outside of Philadelphia, PA.
What initially drew you to the practice/concept of experience design?
I didn’t know the term experience design until much later, but I was drawn to different aspects of it in college. I majored in Communication Design at Kutztown University, where I learned how the art I was drawn to could be applied practically in the service of others. At the same time I was taking courses in sociology and psychology and reading the occasional book on topics like cognitive science and neuroplasticity – there’s not a lot to do in Kutztown, by the way. Through that whole process, I didn’t anticipate those interests meeting.
How would you describe what you do?
I draw from a wide variety of experiences, knowledge and research to concept and design digital, environmental, and print experiences as part of a team.
How do others see what you do?
Outside the field, they tend to view what I do generally as a ‘creative web pro’ which is progress from professional colored pencil user, as I am highly unqualified for that label.
How would you define ‘experience’?
I would say experience is the observed passage of time by an individual, wherein the accompanying self-interpretation plays some role in that individual’s perception of the world and their place in it. Or more simply, experience is any example of the process of participating in life.
How would you define ‘design’?
Design is purposeful creation by an individual or or group that impacts the perceptions, decisions and actions of others, to become, in miniscule ways or large, part of their lives. It affects the amount of friction people encounter in their daily lives as well as the interpretation of their experiences.
What/who are your main influences?
I’m influenced by nature, and the details and interactions that surround and impact my life on a daily basis. I’m also influenced by neurologist/psychiatrist Viktor Frankl and his work on meaning, photographer David DuChemin and his writing on vision and artist James Victore as well. More recently, Eric Meyer and Sara Wachter-Boettcher have influenced my daily thinking with their writings on stress cases.
Tell us about a project that you are working on currently or in the future. How did the project come about?
There’s always a great variety of projects at Backe that we’re working through, but in the after-hours, I tend to circle back on our culture’s growing disconnection from our natural environment and the subsequent consequences. So I wonder about how design can be used to help reverse that. It’s been a self-assigned project that is starting to take shape in a few different forms. It may come to light as an interactive website, an illustrated book, street signs or posters. It’s a big and interesting challenge to think about.
Instead of simply putting out brochures in front of this Philadelphia Flower Show exhibitor, a display was integrated into the exhibit itself.
Do you work across different fields/disciplines or industries?
Yes, I mainly work on the digital side tackling UX, UI and occasional coding, but I’ve done plenty of branding work as well as print and environmental projects, and have occasionally tried my hand at photography or writing content. And there’s been plenty of industries I’ve had the chance to work with: education, healthcare, non-profit, architecture, technology – it’s a continuous tour of things people do.
How do you feel about the role of experience design for the future?
There’s plenty of work to be done! Experience Design in all its forms has so much potential to contribute to society. The attention it’s getting will only help clarify how we define it and bring light to its role in our community. People want to learn and grow and experience life and experience design is there to continuously aid in that.
What do you see as your biggest challenges as an experience designer?
It’s always a challenge to uncover deeper problems than the ones initially presented. So one of the bigger challenges (and the most fun) comes out of walking the string backwards, and interpreting what’s learned along the way. It’s also a daily challenge to envision the details of the lives of others who will be using the end product. To remind myself this is more than a project, it’s something that will be impacting people in all sorts of situations.
How do you think you can work towards overcoming these challenges?
I think the best results come from humanizing the process as much as possible. Having face-to-face conversations and talking to the key decision makers and team members along the way – keeping communication lines open. Also, taking the time to ask good questions to get a better picture of who will be impacted by the design and what kind of scenarios they may be involved in on any given day. In general, it’s good to give projects the space they need for the team to consider various aspects thoughtfully.
What essential qualities/skills do you need to be a successful experience designer?
You need to constantly remind yourself of your own and others’ humanity, and pair that with a general interest in people and how they work. Learn about people, communities and culture as a whole. It’s important to develop diagnostic and analytical ways of thinking so the right questions get asked and their answers found. Also, lead an interesting life.
Tell us a compelling story about why you think it is important to practice experience design.
Good experience design is essentially meaning put out into the world for others to receive at will. Experience design displays consideration and dignity for others in just about every kind of interaction. Individuals can find solace and meaning in the things we create. I see experience design as adding essential accessories to people’s days.
What do you think is the role of research in the experience design process?
Research is crucial to dive into how others think and act. You need envision users’ lives, their cultural choices and their environments to make it realistic and dynamic in the the minds of the people on the team. You also need to gather enough information and data to feel like you can make some decisions on the users’ behalf.
Where does your work in experience design take you?
It takes me inside all sorts of different industries, and has allowed me to meet a wide range of people. I’m able to live vicariously in their shoes for periods of time, and then learn something new about another group immediately afterward. It’s helped me grow as a person and given depth to my world-view. Experience design is a great place for endless curiosity — at Backe it’s great to see efforts of the team gel together and lead to successful solutions out of that curiosity.
Do you have any advice for people wishing to do experience design as part of their role?
Stay thirsty. Whatever area you’re focusing on, learn the basics, and then the more complex aspects only as a starting point. While you’re doing that, take up varied interests to stay engaged with the world. Find different ways to connect with people, even if it’s just people watching on a busy street. Also, utilize analog tools in your process to help in your thinking. And finally, be ready to be humbled – look forward to learning from failure.
Is there anyone inspiring you whom you believe practices experience design but does not call themselves an ‘experience designer’?
If you think about it, the Dalai Lama is teaching us to design our lives through values like compassion and discipline, so that we may experience happiness — and he incorporates both internal truths and scientific data to back it up. Design from the inside out — can’t beat that! More concretely, he’s recently worked on an interactive tool, the Atlas of Emotions, in collaboration with a psychologist that can certainly positively impact the experiences of others. I hope someone sends him an experience design ribbon.
What is your experience design philosophy?
My philosophy is to humanize the designs we create, by taking into account data, compassion, imagination, simplicity and the input of others. Through iteration — the hammering out of ideas — something emerges that will fulfill a purpose. The designs being produced by the team intersect with lives being designed by individuals, so it’s an interesting journey between internal and external worlds. It’s also my philosophy to have as much fun as I can in the process, as I think that correlates with positive results.
How do you think experience design can help make the world a better place?
Experience design can help make the world a better place by communicating love through designed interactions — “Your work is a gift,” as James Victore would say. Say someone needs to go to the hospital. The experience they have using the hospital website, their car, GPS, the parking lot, the hospital itself, forms, pen and wheelchair all shape their overall experience. Each could add friction, and each could seamlessly aid them on their journey. The experience designer who is working on the website and makes adjustments for someone having a horrible day, is acting for a noble cause. So the practice of Experience Design acts to make designers better people as well.
What has been your proudest moment so far as an experience designer?
My proudest moment has been repeated a few times. When I’m working with a client, and I dig into their field and organization, and through that process see a concept or an idea that brings their team together, or helps them see what they do in a better light – that can be pretty rewarding. It’s usually those clients that are most excited about the work they get to share with their end users as well.
Do you believe experience design is an art or a science or a blend of both?
I believe it’s a blend of both, and experience design would really be lacking without a healthy mixture of the two. Both art and science are about asking big questions, investigating, and finding meaning. It’s up to us to decide what questions to ask and how we decide best to answer them — science and art both have their strengths. Science samples the world outside ourselves, collecting data as impartially as we can, but the quantitative is nothing without seeing it through the lens of our humanity. Together they go through a cycle of investigating the world internally and bouncing those findings off of things we observe externally with others. We’re designing things that hopefully benefit groups of people, so both of these need to be top of mind to be successful.