In our latest #CSinterview we talk to Brian Burke, CEO of Smashing Ideas in Seattle. Brian discusses what makes a good design brief, the value of brands investing in UX, and being in a punk band at 15.

How would you describe your job?

I am responsible for day-to-day operations at Smashing Ideas, and lead the agency’s overall direction, development and implementation of Smashing’s long-term growth strategy. I guide the agency to develop innovative design and technology-driven solutions for our partners, helping them thrive in competitive markets and engage at a deeper level with their customers.

How did it all start, and how have you got to where you are today?

I got my start professionally in the software business, but migrated to the early dotcom opportunity days, helping start AtomFilms, one of the first pre-YouTube online content destinations. Even back then, and with the merger with, we took a multi-screen distribution approach to content and it set the stage for many of the emerging business that came from that time. I then took a turn to direct consumer engagement with interactive, online product experiences at Vendaria, and later in contextual advertising at Zango. In the end, it was Smashing Ideas where I made my professional home, and the rest is history.

Which projects that you’ve been involved with, are you most proud of?

I’m proud of the partner and client list we have built at Smashing. All of our engagements are worthy of this attention, but for a start, I am very pleased with the work that we did in the early days during our acquisition by Bertelsmann/Random House. It was a time when the publishing industry was truly going through digital transformation and we built on the opportunity to envision how the iPad and other tablet devices would enhance the reading and storytelling experience for consumers. We were able to bring stories to life, delight young readers with stunning visuals, and help explain complex theories via interactive experiments in the example of our work on Stephen Hawking’s Snapshots of the Universe application.

While much of our work is under strict NDA, I am very proud of all the projects we have done with connected products as well. Transitioning from desktop, to mobile, to combined experiences that now include physical products, has been an exciting step for our agency. Designing experiences that include both physical and digital components requires a different UX lens and a more thorough strategy for success. Our work is helping our clients transform their businesses to create new, competitive offerings in the market that help them lead and not follow.

We understand Smashing Ideas is building its portfolio in design and UX projects for connected devices, and recently created a virtual eyeglasses try-on platform that lets users ‘virtually’ try on different glasses. Can you talk a little bit more about what that project represents in terms of a marketing trend?

As technology and innovation expands, traditional marketing trends are becoming passé. The shift to mobile marketing is here, and with that comes new challenges with connecting and maintaining customers. People now have access to brands 24/7, from virtually anywhere. To capitalize on this, the shift is now towards experiential marketing – meaning access and interaction with a product digitally. It doesn’t hurt to throw in an active social component too. 40% of online retail consumers are in the age range of 18 – 34, and this market segment spends nearly 4 hours a day on social media. Therefore, we sought to create a digital platform that addressed the new trends in marketing, while catering to the very specific wants and needs of modern consumerism.

We created a virtual try-on platform, also known as a smart mirror, to reshape the eyewear experience. Buying glasses can be a serious pain and as they’re something that will cost a fair chunk of change, people take time to select the right glasses – it’s not a rushed, impulse purchase. So we wanted to reinvent the digital retail experience around this that could be used in-store or at home. Essentially, the proto-type platform we built with our partner Ulsee, utilizes virtual reality and facial tracking software to potentially allow shoppers to try-on thousands of frames through their camera or tablet’s phone, with life-like accuracy. People can take pictures with their selections and share over social media to get feedback from friends and family. The platform allows for the possibility for shoppers to get social buy-in, and we envision the experience expanding to where consumers may even select glasses to be waiting for them to try on in-person at the retail location of their choosing. We like the idea of a scenario where once the customer arrives at the store, the sales staff will have a fully customised shopping experience waiting for them based on their preferences established with the application.

Everyone in the digital business talks about UX. We’ve heard that your agency puts a new spin on this with a point-of-view called ‘Motivational UX.’ Can you tell us a bit more about your philosophy?

Talk to any agency or digital shop and you’ll be inundated with all things UX. Basic user experience is a key component to pretty much everyone in the tech world. But good UX is only one part of creating digital experiences that increase brand loyalty, foster higher levels of engagement, and ultimately, create a return on investment. We’ve been in the game for nearly 20 years, and have identified a proven approach that brings together not just good, but proven UX methods, with an extensive history in game design thinking (we’ve created and developed over 400 games and counting) and a deep understanding of human behaviour.

Essentially, Motivational UX is a customer-centric approach to innovation that applies decades of multi-disciplinary research in behavioural psychology, user experience and game design thinking to give clients a strategic edge over their competition. Every company, no matter what they’re selling, knows that super fans and brand loyalists are critical to success. We just happen to have a very clear roadmap to get you there.

As a UX/design agency, what kinds of advice do you give brands when it comes to the Internet of Things?

First, there’s a lot of confusion out there on the concept of the Internet of Things. Most people mistake IoT for wearables or connected experiences, but true IoT is machine-to-machine with self-inputting data. Basically, it eliminates the human component. Brands will be entering this world, like it or not, and it’s estimated that by 2020 there will at least 50 billion connected devices. This could look like anything from your refrigerator reading the freshness and availability of food in your fridge and relaying it to your smart list or to a food processor informing them of real-time shelf-life data, which will impact preservative levels in their food.

What’s already starting to be absent though is the user experience. Most companies are more concerned with if they can create connected products that they often don’t start to analyse whether they should. Therefore the user is often that last part of the equation. We operate on the belief of creating the right solution for the individual project. Not everything needs to be tracked and analysed, nor does everything need be a connected experience. This really comes down to the research, discovery and strategy stage of a project to unearth insights that inform what should be created. If you take a look in a lot of people’s junk drawers, you’ll see vast amounts of connected products, like old FuelBands, taking up space alongside the elusive missing garage remote.

How would you characterise a digital designer’s creative approach?

Science before Adventure!

At Smashing, Visual Designers are titled Visual Experience Designers because they always have users at the center of their thinking. In order to deliver a successful visual experience, a Visual Designer must carefully consider the use of things like colour, shape, fonts and illustration in how people feel about the experience as well as how they construct a mental model for way finding and other interactions.

Everyone works a little differently, but I’ll focus on what is or should be common to any digital Visual Designer’s creative approach to responding to a design challenge. Any Visual Designer worth her salt in digital today will take the time to shine a light into every corner of the what they’re being asked to provide a solution to before they put stylus to Wacom. At SI, we call this approach “Science before Adventure.” Like Dr. Jones cum Indiana, before we grab our fedoras and whips to head off in search of treasure, we get our facts straight, do our research and make plans. This saves a lot of time and a few zeppelin and pontoon plane rides in the wrong direction.

A (good) brief should provide a majority of the answers needed, while leaving plenty of room to dream up the unexpected. If questions remain, good designers will seek answers from peers, clients, Creative Directors or by doing research on their own.

Once a designer feels like she’s got enough Science to get started and she’s pointed in more or less the right direction (you don’t have to have all the answers to start. In fact, it’s rare that the goal posts of a brief don’t move as new insights are revealed along the way – so it’s okay to start with a dotted line and a big, red X), it’s time for adventure!

Next, designers will quickly produce designs that tackle the solution as a whole, externalize their work and look for feedback from peers. Inexperienced designers tend to get too precious with their work too early – making it painful to undo things when they’re headed in the wrong direction. They shouldn’t be going for pixel–perfect until a design approach has come together later on and it’s time to get everything ready for approval or production. Whether mood boards are prescribed as client deliverables or not, good designers will make collecting inspiration and thought-starters part of their approach. It’s good to know what’s going on in the industry (and other industries) to provide the most relevant work, to ensure we aren’t mimicking trends, and to avoid relying too heavily on our go-to tricks and tools.

In the end, the best design solutions are a balance of responding to customer and business goals (the Science) and “heart” (the Adventure). Digital Designers need to be both problem solvers and dreamers.

What are the biggest challenges you’re faced with in your work at the moment and how do you overcome them?

Digital is a constantly changing industry, there is always something new to learn and a new technology we can utilize to make our jobs easier and our team more efficient. We look at this as a positive and work to balance our team’s raw talent with the technology available to us.

What’s been your biggest learning throughout your career so far?

You must stay curious and have a very open mind. There’s a reason why I am in this industry—constant change. Start-ups provided a level of energy that kept me moving at a fast pace, but in the end, we were always working on one or two products. At Smashing, we are always imagining and creating multiple solutions for our clients that keep my mind fresh, my perspective wide, and my heart in the beauty of design.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

I’ve been given a lot of good advice over the years, but when I was younger, I came into a little bit of money and I really wanted to buy a convertible 1964 Mercedes 280SL. It was a beautiful car. In fact, I was going to purchase it within a couple of days and I told a family friend about it and he asked me why. I gave him some typical answer that a teenager would give, and he told me not to buy the car. He told me to travel, live with an open-mind, experience life, and live in reckless abandon while I could, because experiences last much longer than things, and life would get more complicated. I ended up taking his advice, living abroad, traveling extensively throughout Western and Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. Best advice ever and it still shapes me today.

Where do you do your best thinking?

It happens in two areas. First, I do some of my best thinking while exercising. Running, cycling, walking, hiking, skiing, you name it. Perhaps it’s the endorphins, but it allows me to clear my mind and when I am finished, I will write down my thoughts, ideas and then share. Secondly, it happens when I am with members of my team. The shared experience of generating ideas, of talking through possibilities, is invigorating, and our Executive Creative Director actually considers this one of our Creativity principles at Smashing: “Create Togethart”. Solitary creative thinking and group-think are both equally important to me.

Tell us something about yourself that not many people know?

At age 15, I started playing in punk bands, performing live, opening up for touring bands from around the States. I kept playing music throughout my life, was offered a contract with my band from a major label (but we turned it down to stay indie), and even today I still play as much as I can.

Who or what have had the biggest influences on your work?

I have been influenced by my colleagues that have challenged the norm – those who have an entrepreneurial spirit and work to design better digital experiences. I’m influenced by people that say “yes” and then back it up with brilliance.

What does it takes for a growing company to get the attention of major brands?

Major brands are looking for continued distinction in the marketplace, and with digital becoming standard operating procedure, digitally immature companies don’t know where to start. If a company is looking to get the attention of major brands my advice is don’t wait for them to come to you with what they want – more often than not, their focus in not on digital innovation – and quite frankly they don’t know where it begin. Bring them ideas…creativity that goes beyond what their competitors are doing and allows them to do some blue sky thinking. Getting a potential client excited about something they didn’t think was possible is what distinguishes you from your competitors.

What’s next?

It’s in the works. To be continued.