Purpose Driven Design
An Interview with Amy Heymans
Amy Heymans (Cueva) Chief Experience Officer, Mad*Pow
Photo: Ben Gebo
Interviewed by Sarah Merion
Amy Heymans (Cueva) believes that design can help improve the human condition. It was with that mission and vision that she founded Mad*Pow in 2000 with Will Powley, and together they’ve created an award winning agency that takes a purpose driven approach, partnering with clients to deliver social impact and financial return. Design Museum sat down with Amy to learn about her background, entrepreneurial journey, and professional work.
Sarah Merion: How did you get started in the design world?
Amy Heymans (Cueva): I grew up loving art. To me, design is all about problem solving and helping people find new ways of looking at things. My father was an engineer who looked at things from an analytical perspective and my mother was a nurse who would care for people. Both my parents painted and were creative. That blend gave me a service-oriented, creative, and analytical mindset, and I went to college to focus on graphic design.
After studying graphic design for two years, I left college to start a family. I learned to code and began to apply my design skills to the nascent internet as a web designer, landing my first job at Sun Microsystems. Later, the web started to take off and I got a job at an agency working in the dot-com bubble doing visual design and coding. It was then that I realized it’s not about how something looks, it’s about if it’s easy to use. That led me into usability, information architecture, and research to understand how we design something that’s going to work for the people using it, which ultimately led me to user experience design.
Growth doesn’t just happen and it’s not just luck. You need to take steps every day.
When the dot come bubble burst, I was laid off along with most of my company. I decided to start freelancing and teamed up with a former colleague, my co-founder Will Powley. We hired our first Mad*Pow employee in 2006. Now we have 80 people in 2 offices.
SM: Who was your first client at Mad*Pow?
AH: I was at a neighborhood picnic, and I was networking — a survival behavior that has become a super power for me! A neighbor introduced me to someone at Starwood Hotels who needed help on a project. They needed to upgrade their reservation system in the call center to a more web-based system. My partner and I pitched the business together and won it. In interviews with the call center associates, they would say that the screen gave them a headache, it was hard to answer the customers questions who were calling, so they re-designed that. We did a lot of research and usability testing in the call center.
SM: Your title is Chief Experience Officer, can you explain what you do?
AH: I picked this title 15 years ago when Mad*Pow started because I believe that customer experience and design deserve a C-Suite designation. I knew this wasn’t just about digital or users, it was about an entire experience an organization delivers, and the people that organization serves. I wanted to see more Chief Experience Officers in the industry and more people obsessed and passionate about understanding customers and delivering on their needs. Thankfully, that has happened, and now we’re seeing more of this.
When we started Mad*Pow, I was doing everything – the research, wireframing, coding, and project management. As we moved forward, my role is now about understanding how the market is evolving, what do our clients need and want, how do we position our services to deliver that to them. They say only the paranoid survive, so how do we constantly evolve what is needed? This is a bit of market strategy.
I also head up our sales and marketing team, and oversee our health practice. For the past 10 years we’ve been working in health, I founded a conference dedicated to the overlap of health and design and I also work on our Center for Health Experience Design, which is an organization that helps convene people across the ecosystem to get them together to solve some of the most challenging problems in health.
SM: What has been the key to Mad*Pow’s growth?
AH: There was a need in the marketplace to understand customers and provide better experiences. We attracted business through our health practice — Mad*Pow is a purpose- driven organization and interested in making an impact with the work that we do, so working in health really resonated with us because we could help a person live a more vibrant life. Through our focus in health we were able to build awareness and credibility, as well as a portfolio of work, a staff of amazing people, and a roster of great clients. We have now adopted the same model in finance, with our Financial Experience Design conference.
Growth doesn’t just happen and it’s not just luck. You need to take steps every day. Mad*Pow is diligent about our pipeline to make sure we are meeting enough people, having enough conversations, and putting out enough proposals so we ultimately sign enough business to grow. We work really hard on marketing and business development. It requires rigor — we don’t just hope for it.
SM: Is there a recent project you’re particularly proud of?
AH: We worked with Truth.org’s Become an EX (ex-smoker) campaign to help them improve their smoking cessation program. The reason I loved this project is because it involves our behavior change design practice where we combine human-centered design, motivational psychology, and data science to design interventions and measure them to make sure they make an impact. Through the work we did with Become an EX, more people declared a quit date, which is a leading indicator for determining if people will actually quit smoking. I love that this isn’t just a pretty website, but it helps people change their behavior and quit smoking.
SM: Any words of advice for believers in purpose driven design out there?
AH: If you can envision a better way of doing things and you can communicate that, then you can turn people into believers and they will want to work with you to make the vision a reality. Don’t be afraid to dream big and then work towards that dream every day.
Mad*Pow worked with Truth.org’s Become an EX campaign to help people quit smoking.