Meet Sean Gilroy, UX Principal for Neurodiversity & Cognitive Design

Sean talks about neurodiversity at the BBC, his fascination with the paranormal and running from zombies (sort of).


Photo of BBC UX&D Staff
Photo of Sean smiling and folding his arms

In this instalment we meet Sean Gilroy, UX Principal for Neurodiversity & Cognitive Design. He talks about improving our awareness and understanding of neurodiversity, his fascination with the paranormal and running from zombies (sort of).

How do you explain what you do for a living to a child?

Well, I get to travel around the country, and sometimes to other countries like America and Sweden, talking about what we do for BBC CAPE. In case you don't know, CAPE stands for Creating A Positive Environment. We use cognitive design to create accessible user experiences for people with neurodiverse conditions.

While I'm travelling, I also get to meet cool people and share ideas about how we can all make stuff better so that no one gets ignored or left out.

Name one favourite thing and one challenging thing about your role?

My favourite thing is the variety; from advising a Westminster Commission on inclusive employment policy, to sharing inclusive design ideas with the project team delivering the new BBC Cardiff HQ. Whether it’s contributing to an article or podcast, collaborating with UX and other BBC departments, or researching and learning about developments in the field of neuroscience and neurodiversity, there is something different to do everyday. The challenging thing is finding the time to fit it all in and do everything we want to do.

What was your journey before coming to the BBC?  

Mainly along the M1, M5 and M6. I worked as a chartered accountant for different manufacturing and service industries, looking after stuff from gas and electric to nickel alloy products for Aerospace, with some canal work in the middle. In that time, I moved between the East and West Midlands, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and Herefordshire.

I’ve taken somewhat of a leap since then to my current role as UX principal for Neurodiversity & Cognitive Design. I’ve spent 10 years at the BBC in Finance, starting in Birmingham with Nations & Regions, then moving to Children’s, Project North, BBC North and Sport. After the move to Salford, I started a small project with Senior UX Designer Leena Haque, alongside our day jobs in finance. Our project – CAPE – aimed to improve understanding of neurodiversity and awareness around neurodivergent conditions. We were fortunate enough to share our ideas with senior people across the BBC, including UX&D's Chief Design Officer, Colin Burns. Colin was interested in neurodiversity and its creative potential, and asked us to continue with CAPE, exploring this idea for UX&D. I'd always heard about how amazing the BBC can be for development and opportunities, and I consider myself extremely lucky to have had this experience.

What’s the worst job you have ever done?

It’s a dice throw between a council job as a customer service operative in the refuse department (“Hello, Cleansing! How can I help you?”) to cleaning cars as a valet for 13 hours a day, averaging about 50p an hour.

If you could explore any other profession, what would it be and why?  

I always wanted to be a ghostbuster, so being a parapsychologist would be cool. I was always fascinated by the paranormal and I liked the idea of working as a scientist, exploring the unknown and discovering new things.

If you could travel back in time and give yourself one piece of career advice, what would it be?  

Don’t worry about a career and just focus on doing something you love. I think we expect people to specialise far too early. We put pressure on kids still at school to have an idea of what they want to do for the rest of their lives before they’ve even sat a formal exam. I also think that we don’t allow kids to explore their creative side enough and certainly not as a valid way to make a living. I get the impression that we’re still pointing kids towards stereotypical job roles and suggesting creative subjects are to be enjoyed as pastimes or hobbies. 

What’s on your playlist right now?  

‘Blister in the Sun’ by Violent Femmes. To be honest, it’s part of a playlist I put together a while ago when I was training for my first marathon, which was in Manchester. It’s got all sorts of stuff in it from rock to ska, choral to ‘60s protest songs, and everything in between. It caters to whatever training plan I need. I’ve been meaning to go though and refine it a little, but I seem instead to keep adding more tracks – which actually could work now that I’m thinking of trying some Ultra Marathons.

What do you do to switch off from work?  

It’s quite hard to totally switch off as I’m always thinking about what we could be doing, should be doing or what I haven’t yet done – but I do find that running gives me a window to sort stuff out and focus on something else. The problem is motivation to go out and run, so I keep signing up to events to make sure I have to do it – half marathons, marathons and the such. I also run from Zombies  (sort of – its an app I use that immerses you in a story while you’re running and occasionally sets Zombies after you!). I’ve also just registered my interest for the Marathon Des Sables in 2020, taking some inspiration from Sophie Raworth’s recent experiences. There, I’ve shared it now so I’ve got to do it :)

In a world where anything is possible, what’s the single most exciting thing you would do with technology?  

I’d love to explore the farthest reaches of the universe, so I would have a faster-than-light vehicle that allowed me to travel everywhere and anywhere and all within a lifetime.

What drives or inspires you?  

I really enjoy helping people and supporting them in achieving their own successes, so being able to do that as part of what I do inspires and drives me to do more.

Where next?