• Alan Cooper: Letting Light into the Forest

    Alan Cooper is, in his words, “a Silicon Valley trailblazer.” As the founder of Cooper, an interaction design consultancy, he is renowned for his work with personas and his firm’s rigorous design methodology. He’s also a newly-minted country boy, having moved five short years ago to a former dairy farm north of the city.

    He is bullish about the long-term demand for consultancies to do interaction design work like his own firm offers. I asked him if he felt the same way about service design. “As far as I’m concerned, service design is a way of describing what we do, in such a way so that it’s applied more broadly across the organization and more broadly across all the touchpoints,” he said.

    “When I went into this it was interface design and it was mostly the design of keystrokes and pixels. It was about what buttons and menus, and the important question was: why are those there? Why don’t you just get rid of all that complicated crap that nobody wants? So if what you’re doing is you’re talking about the behavior of digital systems, that’s across the board service stuff. To me, service design is a synonym for user experience design. It’s a synonym for interaction design. It’s a synonym for ‘make it easy to use and make it understandable.’”

    In the end, he says, “I think we’re all after the same thing. If you’re bent on making service design a unique practice that’s set aside as different training and different selling techniques than your broader ‘interaction design,’ then I think you may be looking at a shrinking marketplace. But if you’re looking at it as a way to help organizations to succeed in their businesses, to waste less time and money, and to be more effective as they move forward and respond, and make their customers happier, then I think it’s an ever-expanding universe.

    “So that’s my way of looking at it. Your mileage may vary. But if you are a good service designer, then you have a sinecure. You will be needed and your work will be appreciated and respected, and you will have your thumbprints on some number of organizations.”

    At this year’s UX Week, he’ll be presenting a talk called “Ranch Stories,” about how time spent in his new rural home has taught him life lessons that he was surprised to find could be applied to interaction design.

    Speaking of his new hometown, Alan said, “My neighbors are unreconstructed country folk. The culture clash has been exciting, educational, and really interesting. My neighbors really hate all this anti-gun fervor in America, but they’re not gun nuts. They’re not survivalists or people worried about the uprising of people of color or people who are hoarding assault weapons,” he continued. “What it is is that everyday tools for their work include firearms, because when you’re got a bunch of cows and sheep out in the field you have to protect them against predators.” Alan told me that he has embraced the reality of the rural lifestyle, even buying a gun himself. It’s all part of his own voyage of discovery.

    Alan is also committed to ethics, viewing design as a way to fulfill people’s needs and desires. He sees it as the designer’s duty to never lose sight of the responsibility that fact entails.

    “It used to be that the United States government, through Congress and through their regulatory arms, protected the citizenry. And that’s not happening anymore,” he said. “Who is going to take their place? As far as I’m concerned, we’d better: you and me and the coterie of what I call the three Ds: the designers, developers, and deployers of technology products.”

    I asked Alan for a preview of his talk. “One thing I wanted to do is I wanted to talk about all the interesting stuff I was learning from all these new people and these new points of view out here in the country, and I also wanted to talk about ethics,” he said. “And I was struggling because the ethics stuff is boring as hell and the farm talk was really interesting, but it didn’t go anywhere.” A colleague ultimately suggested that he combine the two talks.

    Life in the country suits Alan. “I am much, much happier than I ever was in Portola Valley,” he said, referring to his former home near Palo Alto. “In Portola Valley I was a member of the tennis club. Here, I’m a member of the 4H. I spent Father’s Day cooking beans for the Volunteer Fire Department’s annual Father’s Day barbecue fundraiser.” Looking back, he said, “For 24 years my wife and I lived in a little funky three-and-two on the wrong side of the tracks in Menlo Park. I had a little 20 by 20-foot room on top of the garage. It had my books and my desk and that’s where I wrote Ruby, that became Visual Basic.”

    Of those early days in his career, Alan said, “To use Ken Kesey’s word, I was letting light into the forest. I was doing something that nobody had ever done before. I was building software that the world had never seen before and that changed the face of the software world. Then I became a designer before there were any designers. I called myself an interaction designer before there was any such thing as an interaction designer.

    “I had a distributed staff, for Ruby. So what we’d do is we’d meet once a week because everybody worked out of their homes. It was one of the first distributed companies. This was in 1988.”

    Cooper was founded in 1992 as Cooper Interaction Design. As the head of the company for 24 years now, Alan has seen the design consulting industry through boom and bust.

    “It’s really interesting,” Alan said of the recent round of acquisitions of design firms by large companies. “Was it Mark Twain who said, ‘Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.’ One of my favorite quotes—I can’t attribute it, but ostensibly it came from a U.S. Navy admiral in the middle of the Cold War. He said, ‘We could give one of our aircraft carriers to the Soviets and they’d blow themselves up when they figured out to use it’—because it’s such a complicated piece of technology. That’s exactly how I feel about design consulting—the design you do at the consulting level is very sophisticated. And all these companies are coming along and they’re saying, ‘We’ve been hiring these guys to do design for us and it’s costing us a lot of money. Why don’t we just find these companies and bring it in-house?’ Can you hear the explosions as they blow themselves up?”

    To hear Alan deliver his keynote at our upcoming UX Week 2016 in San Francisco, register here.



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