After facing rejection and winding path, former actor/singer Brandon Ward found his life taking a turn toward User Experience design...before he even knew what UX was. - Find him on Linkedin
Tony: Howdy friends - welcome to the XD Podcast. As always, I'm your host, Tony Daussat. If this is your first time tuning in, thank you so much for being here. I hope you stick around and if you are returning listener, I am so glad to have you back. If you like what you've heard so far, I certainly would love if you subscribe to the show, wherever you're listening and I tell you I always love reading the reviews that I get from y'all on the show. It really makes my day and it means the world to me. This week I sat down with Brandon Ward. I was particularly interested in talking to him because we have similar backgrounds in acting and performance. I think it's so amazing how user experience seems to draw people from all backgrounds and different walks of life. But enough of me jabbing. Let's get to the interview.
Tony: All right. Brandon Ward. Here we are.
Tony: Interestingly enough, this is the first time you and I have actually spoken face to face.
Brandon: Yeah, I think so.
Tony: Even though like I've seen you around conferences like meetups, all these different things. And so I stalked you a bit, especially after seeing, um, Project UX, which you're the host of. Um, and you and I have kind of similar backgrounds-
Brandon: That's right.
Tony: -In the acting world. So can you just go back and tell me about your background and how you got to be doing what you're doing?
Brandon: That's, yeah, that's a fun story for me. You know, in high school they tell you, uh, figure out what classes that you're enjoying. Um, really, really, really bad career planners will tell you this advice. They'll say, take the thing that you're passionate about. Take the thing that you love. What class do you love the most? That's what you should do for a career. And so for me, my favorite classes at the time were uh choir and uh, I had just done my first musical we did Into the Woods and I got the acting bug, uh, and I was like, this is what I want to do. Well, of course it is. Who, who doesn't want to be a movie star and a rock star? And so that's what I wanted to do. Um, so, uh, I applied to various colleges and I got accepted to College of Idaho, but it was incredibly expensive. It's a private liberal arts college and I didn't have any money. And so I thought, how can I get more money? My music scholarship wasn't enough. And I said, I really like acting. Uh, maybe I can get an acting scholarship as well. So I auditioned for the theater department as well. And I got in as an acting major, so I had a double major of vocal performance and theater. Meanwhile, I took all sorts of electives and my senior year, my, um, Dr. Dairy, my theory comp professor said, uh, I didn't see you sign up for the 400 level a composition class. And I was like, Nah, I figured I'd take it easy this last semester. I've got all I've more than enough credits and I, I figured I'd just give myself a break on one of the days like normal students do. And she says, but that's the only class you lack for a theory and composition degree. So I'm like, oh, okay. So I took that. So I ended up accidentally triple majoring.
Tony: Oh my...
Brandon: Um, but it turns out I was a big fish in a little pond.
Brandon: I did a lot of plays. I was in every play, every musical, every opera, right. Cause it's 1200 students, small program. So I got leads in everything, uh, that I wanted. And when I went to go to Grad school, I didn't get in anywhere.
Tony: Oh really?
Brandon: Uh, I was, I was winning best actor awards in high school and outstanding musician awards and all these extra scholarships on top of my scholarship because I was so amazing. So I thought, right. Uh, but I wasn't as good as I thought. And, um, I didn't get in to, four, I, I auditioned for four schools, um, and I didn't get in anywhere and it was devastating. I even, my fallback Grad School, I didn't get in. I was like, what, what's going on? Um, and it was kind of an eyeopening, you know, uh maturing experience going maybe, maybe I'm not good enough, right? Now for good or for ill. Uh, I was afraid I wanted to go to New York and audition, but now I'm afraid. And that fear kind of got the, got the best of me. So I was wandering around the campus disillusioned, um, and I was thinking, what else am I going to do with my life? And, uh, I thought, I'm wondering if there's a way can combine music and technology. And so I just started asking and people bounced me around from school to school and finally ended up at the School of Telecommunications there at IU. And I wanted up to this lady and I said, do you know if there's any program here where I can combine music and technology? She says, actually there is, it's called Masters in Immersive Media Environments--MIME for short. And uh, she said, I actually just got into the program myself and, uh, you should check it out, talk to Tom Gillispie. So I went and found Professor Gillespie and chatted and he gave me all the stuff I need to do, apply. And I applied to that program and I got in. So now my focus is producing interactive audio. I said, I know my new career, it will be producing music and sound for video games because that's the most applicable, right? Interactive music equals video games. Um, so I spent the next two years, uh, working through the MIME program. Um, one of the classes that I took, uh, at the MIME program was Cognitive Psychology by Dr with Dr. Fox. And she had us read, um, the Media Equation by Reeves and Nass. And that book kind of blew my head wide open about how humans think about the way we interact with media and the world around us. I was loving life thinking... I knew I had it all put together. I, I knew what I was doing. I'm a great composer- I'm a great sound guy. Things are going great. Um, and uh, I'm not finding any jobs. I finished my program. Things are going well and like whatever. So meanwhile, while I'm going to Grad school, I got hired as a, as a producer at this, um, uh, online, uh, training thing. So e-learning, uh, we produced uh first interactive CD ROMS in Director producing an interactive training for Photoshop, Illustrator, Pagemaker, Quirk, Indesign all for the the pre-press industry. So my job was to take video audio, stitch it together, bring it in, Director, make it interactive, uh, and then help burn it to a CD Rom that we would then sell to people who wanted to learn how to use Photoshop. Right? Well, after awhile my boss quit. I became the Director of Production. I hired people, um, and uh, kind of built up that production facility all while I'm going to Grad school. So for me, this was just a way to pay bills. But meanwhile, I've learned a little bit of lingo, but I switched us over to Flash as soon as I could because now I knew Flash really well. Um, and we bagged CD Rom, we switched over to developing or delivering online and, uh, and was just having a great time with, with that company. Worked there for four and a half years while I was doing my Grad school stuff. Um, so by the end of that, I'm writing training for Photoshop, writing training for illustrator writing. So I'm, I'm doing tons of writing, I'm taking all this stuff I'm learning at Grad school to, to understand how humans work, how humans interact with stuff, applying that to instructional design-- from then on, I stopped pursuing game audio. So I doubled down on flash. Um, I learned how to be a hardcore, uh, AS3 Dev, um, started learning Flex. Uh, and, um, I got a phone call in 2008 from a recruiter and she said, we're looking at your resume and we think you'd be perfect for this Director of UX position at this hot new startup here in Seattle. And I said, that sounds awesome. What's UX?
And she says, well, it's what you do. And I said, tell me more. And so she explained to me the basics of what UX design was. And I went, that is what I do. I didn't know that was a thing. I knew usability was a thing. I knew HCI was a thing, but I'd never heard UX. I had briefly heard, uh, interaction design, but I didn't know if that was like instructional design kind of, kind of in your head kind of stuff. And so I had, and I was focusing on development at the time. So I bought 'The Inmates are Running the Asylum' by Alan Cooper. I bought 'About Face' by Alan Cooper. I bought a, 'The Design of Everyday Things' by Don Norman. Uh, I read 'Rocket Surgery Made Easy' by Steve Krug. I read, 'Don't Make Me Think' by Steve Krug. And I just started reading everything I could from Amazon about UX and every line, every sentence I read from these, uh, masters convinced me more and more that that is where the world needed me to be and wanted me to be. And I wanted to be there.
And so I, I applied for that job of Director of UX and I got it. Uh, and that was my first UX title. Even though retrospectively, if you look back on everything I did, I was a UX designer. I would research, I would talk to people, I would, um, I would create wire frames and prototypes and I did all this stuff. I just didn't know there was a, uh, a methodology and there was process that I could leverage and use. I didn't know there were other kinds of tools available to me yet. I was just winging it. Uh, and once I discovered my people, you know, IXDA and UXPA, uh, I just, uh, just kind of skyrocketed. And then around 2013, my company got acquired and, uh, I was living in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and we got acquired and, and, and I didn't want to work for the company that acquired us anymore. And, uh, a friend of mine, Travis Isaacs lived here in Dallas and said, the market was super hot here. And we're like, he didn't tell me how super hot the summer's, were just how super hot for the UX market was. And, and so we moved to Dallas, uh, got a job here and I've, we've been living here for five and a half years. And, uh, I stopped coding when I moved here. So strictly, um, user experience and UI design and even for the last three years- at Precocity- Um, we have an amazing team of UI designers and they design circles around me aesthetically. So, uh, the last three years I've been focused mostly on a user research, user experience, design interaction, uh, information architecture and all the way up through the wireframe stuff. And then, uh, and then my designers take, take the rest.
Tony: What is Precocity?
Brandon: Precocity- we're a software consultancy. Um, we compete with Bottle Rocket and Slalom and Improving and P202, um, and, uh, our, our focus, are data-driven user experience. So we have on staff data scientists who, um, help me--Uh, so they, you think of data science, big data, machine learning, AI. Yes, that's what he does. Um, and we leverage his skills for my research gathering phase. So we can come into your company, be retail or, or uh hospitality, um, government, any of our verticals and, and uh, and take all of that data and surface it in, in meaningful ways to help us understand your, your people, your users, your customers. Um, then we go through your standard UX process, um, which we call IDEA, uh, insights, design, evaluate and apply. Um, so in the insights phase, is that research gathering phase-- Then we design, we assume we know what's right. And so we design, uh, like we know we're right, then we evaluate and we test like we know we're wrong. Um, you know, we assume everything we, we assumed at the beginning was a lie and we test the crap out of to make sure that, you know, we did stuff right and then we iterate. It's the, you know, it's the SLDC. So, um, work through all that. Um, and then we also have the data science at the end as well. So we can take all of the metrics and analytics from what we're doing and feed that back into the process. That's part of that evaluation and apply that feeds back into the insight. So it's just a big loop.
Tony: And as far as your day to day work, how have you been able to inject all of the learnings you had from acting and music into the user experience career?
Brandon: That's a really good question. Um, for a long time, I didn't think I did for a long time. I thought that my undergrad education was kind of a waste, but the, the more and more I presented, uh, in small rooms and in large, the more I realized that I had a stage presence that came naturally to me that a lot of people don't, especially developers. So I was a, I was a really weird developer cause I can talk with other people, you know what I mean? Um, and I can-
Tony: No offense developers.
Brandon: Exactly, but I can do literally song and dance. Right. And I, and in fact I don't just not like it. I actually enjoy it. Um, and that was really weird. That weirded people out about me when I was a coder. And then as a designer, it's even, it's more important to be able to be comfortable in your own skin, um, as an actor and a singer, when you audition, you are literally saying, "this is me," to, to paraphrase, uh, the 'Greatest Showman,' but you're saying, "hey, this is me." Do you like me? And when you get rejected at an audition as an actor or a singer they're, what they're saying is, "no, we do not like you." Right, like as a designer. You're like, "Hey, I made a thing. Do you like," and they're like, "Nah." You're like, "oh, okay." Because that's not me. That's just something I made. But when you get rejected as a performer, they literally are saying, "it's not us. It's you and, and you suck and we don't like you." And so through that audition process, uh, you really have to build a tough skin. So, uh, as I, as I started to realize that all of this thickening of skin, um, all of the presenting and then getting constructive feedback and then reworking, I mean, that's a designers life. So I met a lot of designers who take all their constructive criticism really personally at the same time.
Now, sometimes when you make decisions, you have to be able to defend them. And so, uh, early on I was just defending with my gut. I'm like, no, I think you're wrong. I read in a book that, or statistics show that, or etc etc. Um, but then when I had data and I would say that's a really interesting opinion. Um, I disagree with your opinion, Mr CEO, and let me tell you why. First of all, in my experience, ABCDEFG but even if you disagree with that and you have every right to, let me show you some data, here's a research study done at such and such place with this. Here's some research we did. Here's what your users are saying that when I talked to them, these are literal quotes from your customers. Now how do you feel about it? And often they would say, oh, in that case, do it your way. I didn't, I didn't know. And sometimes they would say, no, I still don't care. I'm the CEO, do it my way. And sometimes they were right.
Tony: There are times when you can do as much research as anyone can handle and talk to as many people. But sometimes intuition is intuition. And if you--one of my favorite quotes of all time is Henry Ford. And he says, if I would have asked people what they wanted, they would've said a faster horse.
Brandon: That's an anecdote. We don't know for sure if Henry Ford actually said that.
Tony: Oh dang it!
Brandon: Sorry. I know. Sorry to steal your- But it is basically-
Tony: -there goes just my, entire mantra!
Brandon: I know it's, but it's, it's a wonderful quote. Um, and I, I love it a lot too and I agree with it 100%. There's a wonderful study done by Sony. Uh, look up the Sony, um, Stereo study. They used focus groups for this one, so if they're inherently going to have problems, right. But, um, they did a focus group and they, they had a yellow, a stereo and a black stereo and a red stereo. And they went through all the features. They were with them for like a day or something. And, um, and one of the things they asked was, which of these stereos do prefer which color? Red, yellow, or black. Because then when they wanted to know what kind of percentages of production they needed to do for each color, and everybody said that yellow. Oh my gosh, that yellow stereo. So cool. And the next to that, we really liked the red one. I mean they're, they're bold, they're brash, they're bright. And Oh my gosh, that's so great. And that Sony Yellow, right? Cause you had the Sony Walkman was yellow. And uh, so there was all of that, uh, going on for it and they like, oh this is great. And so Sony's teams, you know, writing down, oh my gosh, this is great data. No, I, we were going to make all, all of them black, but I guess we need to make them all yellow now. Cause everybody's gonna want yellow. And everybody is super excited behind the, you know, the two way mirror, one way mirror or whatever they're called. And uh, and, and they said as a gift and, and uh, honorarium for your participation today, you get a free stereo. And so they had yellow ones and red ones and black ones. And as the entire group walked out, guess which one they grabbed?
Tony: Ha! Not The yellow one.
Brandon: Not the yellow one. They all grabbed a black. Every single one of them, they'd rank them yellow, red, black. And then as they walked out the door and they had to make a choice, they all chose black. Um, and then all the researchers were like, what is going on? Uh, and, and we all, we can all start to intuit why that is. So intuitively we would've made all a bunch of black ones, maybe some red ones, and maybe a couple of yellow ones just to look cool in the store. Right. Um, but if you'd had asked all of those people and just gone off what they said, you would have made a boatload of yellow ones and you never would have sold them and you would have constantly been on back order for black because people didn't want the other ones in their homes. They want to black ones. Right. So it's, it, you're exactly right.
Tony: Um, it's interesting about that, that Sony story, I'd never heard that before. And it rings true, um, that it's, it's more powerful seeing what a user does rather than hearing what they do.
Tony: I mean it just time and time again, there's more power in the doing than there is hearing.
Brandon: And that's, that's why, uh, I, it frustrates me to no end when companies don't want to, um, let us do contextual inquiry. I've worked for an oil and gas company, uh, and we were building a software package for them and I wanted to go out to the offices of the people actually using the software. A company's been around like 20 years and so there are a lot of people out there using it and I just wanted to go out and watch him use it, see what they do, what are their desks look like, what, how are they set up? And, and they, they just kept pushing back. Like, just make it pretty, that's what we hired you to do. You know, I'm like, but we're rebuilding the platform from nothing. We, we had a really unique opportunity. We, we started with zero lines of code. Greenfield. We were using the existing app simply as a go by. And I was, um, often you don't want to do that, but this one had languished for 20 years--So you did, you did want a revolutionary kind of kind of designed for this one. And, but they wouldn't let me talk to the people in their space. Oh, you don't want to bother them? I'm like, do you know how much I would love if somebody came, if Adobe said, can we come sit behind you for a day and watch you use our tools? I'd be like, yeah, please. Right. I'll share so many stories with you. Right? Uh, people love that, but they just, companies are really afraid of that. And so finally, uh, they let me talk to a few of their employees who used to be customers. Um, and this is very common actually. I've had multiple companies do this to me, but it's better than nothing. It's not the best. But, um, so then I said, please set your desktop like when you work or a customer. And so they did, they set their desk up and I said, now... How do you- For instance, this is an accounting platform. So I was, how do you enter checks? And they answer, like, Oh, entering checks. Oh yeah. And so they had to remember. And then so they set their desk up a certain way and they put a stack of paper over here and I'm like, why are you putting a stack of paper? They're like, well those are my checks. I'm like, oh, this isn't, you're not copying pasting information. You're visually taking information from a piece of paper and putting it in the system. Oh yeah. What did you think? Entering checks, meant? I'm like, I don't know. I can't remember the last time I got a physical check. So this is, this is new to me, right? I don't, I don't know how this works. So, um, so they put their stack of checks, some of them hung them, right? Some would hang them from those arms. If you remember when you're doing transcription, a little arm hung off your CRT monitor. Right. And so they would do that. They had these, they, and they would take a check, shove it in that, and then they would type, type, type, type, type, type, enter gone. And they would chuck that piece of paper. Sometimes in the garbage. Sometimes on the floor--there was any number of things that they would do, because it was all about speed and nobody had told me that. Everybody was like, we need it to be efficient and we need it to be usable and not- you shouldn't have to be able to be trained on it, right? We shouldn't have to pay people to teach you how to use our software. You should just be able to open it and use it. And I'm like, yeah, oh great. Obviously. But, but I didn't know they had a stack of 2-300 pieces of paper with all sorts of disparate data that then they had to visually trans-transcode. And so when I watched them do this in the existing tool, nobody ever looked at their monitor, not one. Well, I'm like, ah, why aren't you looking at your screen?
And they're like, I don't need to. I know when I started at the top left, I put my cursor in the top left and I hit typing, typing, typing, enter type, type, type, Tab, type, type, type, enter, type, type, tab- whatever. Uh, and the, the fields are all keyed up with uh, a nice tab order. And I can, they said I can do 200 tech checks and never look at the screen. Um, because when they know they know where they are and where their cursor is in focus without looking at it and they can just enter once you do it for a week or two and you do that as your main job. Yeah. It becomes rote. Um, and I went back to my screens that I had designed for check entry and they were all visual. You Click and put your cursor here and maybe you can tab around the form fields. Right. But the entire layout was wrong and it would made, that would've made them slower at their jobs. And I, I didn't, I would never would have, I could have maybe intuited that if I had thought about if somebody had told me what check entry, but it's nothing is as good as sitting down watching somebody go, why did you do that? Why is that there? What's that? Why are you doing that? Why did you not do this?
I think, I think for, for most of us, the struggle has been to convince other people that the tools and methods that we have are legit and useful and worth it. Um, and so there's, you'll see tons of talks. Jeremy Johnson has amazing talk on the ROI of UX and it's, uh, and he says, because we print the money, that's why you hire UX designers. And, and he's right. We do. Uh, and the ROI is insane. I've seen numbers anywhere between a one to 10 to one to 100. I've seen some that were like one to 10,000, right? The million or the, you know, the, the $300,000 button or the $300 million button-
Tony: Oh, yeah $300 million.
Brandon: Right--Yeah. I mean, the ROI of that was, was it probably like 5000%, you know, uh, the pay to pay them what, maybe 30 grand, 40 grand for the research and implementation and then made $300 million in one year. What's the ROI of that and why? They didn't even do what you hired them to do. Cause you know, he hired a Jerrod's company to reinvent their cart, checkout. All they did was change the label on a button. You know, and, and it's, it's if you use the tools, so I, I, if I could ask for one thing for our industry, it would be not only for me, and this is a big ask for me because it's something that I struggle with, is selling what we do. And, and so going back to your question about music and theater and music and theater hasn't really helps me get there. It's helped me everywhere else. Uh, if you have to go get another degree, get an acting degree. Um, one of my workshops that I'm pitching out right now, uh, is to, to try to get in a conferences is all about Improv. Applied improvisation using improv games and techniques to better yourself in the boardroom and when you're presenting your work, uh, and then in your interpersonal relationships as well. Um, hopefully that gets accepted to the conferences that I've submitted it to. But I really believe that if you want to improve your value as a designer or a developer or as a leader, getting a degree in theater or at least studying Improv is going to help you tremendously. Um, but one of what I need now, I need, I need marketing prowess. I need to be able to know how to sell. Um, I need to be able to convince stakeholders that what I'm telling them is the truth. That research isn't a four letter word. Right? And it's absolutely worth it.
Tony: As we wrap up, I like to ask everybody the same question and it has nothing to do with anything and it's what nondigital thing that you own has had the greatest impact on your life or means the most to you and why?
Brandon: Non-digital thing... Been digital for so long. Like all of my tools are digital... My house is digital. I have smart thermostats and smoke detectors and smart doorbells. But, uh, I bet my wife would be able to answer this a lot better than me. She probably would know. Oh yeah, it's your thing and be like, oh yeah, that thing.
Tony: What would she say for you?
Brandon: Uh, I'm trying to put myself in her head. Uh-
Tony: Your kilt?
Brandon: Nah, I mean that's, that's just a source of expression. I mean, I've thought about, I'm going to have to go with, you know, they say your, your first inclination is usually the right answer, right? So I'm just going to have to go there. But it seems so weird. I thought maybe I was smoking crack, but all right. So I think for me it's... Me.
Tony: Go on...
Brandon: Uh, I, as a singer, your tool is your voice as an actor. You're tool is your voice, your face, your body, your hands. Um, in my professional career and in my personal life, uh, with my spouse, with my children, with my friends and associates, um, I think the thing I'm most proud of and the thing that I've leveraged the most is myself, my personality. In the sense that I am me. So if you were to meet me in a boardroom or you were to meet me at the pool or you were to meet me at the gym, or you were to meet me at church, they're all me. It's just me. I don't change my speech patterns. I don't change my clothes. I don't change the words that I use, things that I say, um, for better or for worse. This has gotten me into trouble too. Um, but, uh, at the end of the day, I am me genuinely- and, and I think that ability to love myself and be true to who I am in terms of integrity, both from a design point of view, from an ethical point of view, I never have to worry about where I stand. And I always know who I am no matter what room I walk into. So the tool that I think I've been able to leverage the most effectively and has been the most of the most use to me is... Me.
Tony: Well, isn't that just deep?
Brandon: I dunno, or it's incredibly egomaniacal. I Dunno. But, it's just uh-
Tony: Well in closing, of course I do a lot of stalking when I prep for these. And there's one thing besides the acting besides the UX sides, all of these things that we have in common that really hit home for me and we both have an unhealthy obsession with Hugh Jackman.
Brandon: Ha! So where did this come up? Where, where did you find that your stalking?
Tony: That's for me to know and for you to ever find out.
Tony: Well thank you for being here. I've enjoyed our little convo. And until next time.
Brandon: Thanks, Tony.
Tony: Okee Dokee- that will do it for this week. If you want to follow Brandon, I'll have a link to his linkedin profile in the show notes. As always, you can find the full transcript of this episode at xdpodcast.com and you can stalk me on Facebook or Instagram @xdpodcast. Can't wait to have you back next week. But until then, friends, stay curious.
New Speaker: This episode was produced and written, edited, and by me, Tony, Daussat. Hosting and publication of the XD Podcast is on Buzzsprout.