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Alan Cooper Told The Audience What They Wanted To Hear, Not What They Needed To Hear

A couple nights ago I saw Alan Cooper present his Interaction08 Keynote, An Insurgency of Quality, for a local audience.

His presentation is quite rambly, but I think the heart of the thesis was:

  • best-to-market always beats first-to-market
  • quality takes time
  • interaction designers are craftspeople
  • programmers are craftspeople
  • business management is optimized for an industrial economy; they don’t know how to handle a post-industrial economy
  • interaction designers and programmers should join forces and make great things, and success will follow

Alan makes a lot of good points in his talk (many of which we make at Adaptive Path, such as how thoughtful design allowed iPod and Palm to beat predecessors, the value of distinguishing between design engineering and production engineering, and the value of the Quick Win), but he lost me when he advocated ignoring the business folks because they simply won’t get it. Not just “don’t” get it, but “won’t” get it. He seems to think that business folks are wired in such a way that they can’t handle the post-industrial economy. He also believes that attempts to quantify business value of post-industrial work is a fool’s errand.

He basically told the audience what they want to hear, but not what they need to hear.

I tried to respond in a comment/question, arguing that the IxDs and programmers need to join forces with savvy business folks who can champion their cause. And that IxDs and programmers rarely express any interest in being held accountable, and that’s why business people have the power — they’re willing to put their butt in the sling. He misunderstood my comment about accountability and construed it as a comment about return on investment, and he got all rambly about quantification. Accountability is not necessarily about ROI — in fact, many business folks that ROI and NPV are typically just tools to CYA. But, what we saw in our 2003 research on ROI and User Experience is that the act of making a rigorous connection between design interventions and driving real business value (however that value is defined in that organization) leads not just to business success, but often better, and more useful design.

More than anything else, this talk exposed the interaction design profession’s neuroses around dealing with the larger world of business, and I suspect Alan’s frustration in dealing with “business people” has lead him to want to neglect them altogether. He is fortunate to be in a position where he can do that… But I fear if anyone were to try to follow his suggestions they’d find themselves marginalized and angry as all their brilliance goes for naught.

  1. not to mention that in any large organization its the business people who sign the checks to fund the projects. that won’t happen without ‘buy in’

  2. Interesting take. You nailed one of the false dichotomies I think he made in that talk.

    Ultimately a good commercial product has to be a good business proposition, or it won’t succeed. Steve Jobs provides another example there: the NeXT cube and workstation, which were brilliantly designed and a business disaster.

    My fear is that Cooper looks on both businesspeople and engineers as necessary evils to executing his vision. Whenever any specialist says, “Everything will go better if my specialty is in charge,” it gives me the willies. That was certainly his claim at the beginning of the decade, and I think he’s made some progress, but essentially believes that.

  3. Yup. There were a few large questions going begging. Such as who pays the paychecks for the brilliant people, and who is accountable to the customers, when you have customers. If you do it yourself, then golly, you have become (horrors) a business person. If you expect someone else to do it for you, then you have to deal with business people.

    Steve Jobs’ success with the iPod was not just about a gorgeous product, but about how people will buy music and how Apple will get paid for it. The b-word.

    The attidude that Cooper advocates is, pay me for I am brilliant, and will eventually create something of value, though I cannot tell you what or when. There is a limited number of people who can pull this off. People with this attitude who expect to be rewarded are mostly setting up to be disappointed and bitter.

  4. What was missing for me in Alan’s presentation were stories about how he’s road tested his insurgency in actual consulting engagements.

    It’s easy to espouse big change. The deeper challenge is to implement it in situations with real constraints and entrenched processes, and the true test of a set of ideas is in seeing them succeed in these situations.

    I’ve posted more on this at

  5. As a check writer, I think Peter’s points are right on. We need to articulate from the first dollar *why* we are making the choices we do. It’s not all about ROI. It can absolutely be about return on a wide number of objectives. But you need to quantatively measure success.

    Ignoring the customer (and I mean the customer not the consumer) or assuming he/she doesn’t get it is not a good idea at all.

    Business owners are craftspeople too.

  6. I find Alan Cooper’s standpoint strange and a touch ironic, especially how he helped inspire the use of personas and how they help fulfil business objectives.

    Design is not art, we do it because we are paid and we do it for a customer who is paying for it. There is craft and skill in what we do but we do not decide how products are created without a brief. Doing it with a personal brief would be art and not design.

    There is a clear difference that Alan seems to be ignoring. Its always good to be evangelical about your design practice but without a level of transparency that all stakeholders can see then we are creating ivory towers – and that is a real problem.

  7. I’ve been a Cooper consultant for the past eight years, and I’ll try to add a little perspective from the consulting side. When Alan talks about “business people,” I think he’s really talking about “the business,” as in the posture/stance/direction of the business as a whole, or the executives who plot the course in a macro way. Almost every client I’ve worked for has had at least one business person who shares our values and priorities; like Niti says above, without that person, we’d never get in the door.

    Still, we bump up against the edges of our design sandbox often. We’re often confronted with UI decisions that strike at key elements of the client’s business. What is “right” for the design may alter (slightly, radically) the product’s definition and may therefore also change (slightly, radically) the core offering of the business. We obviously can’t make decisions like these in a vacuum, and I think that part of Alan’s point is that we’ve also struggled to pivot the battleship of the business on the fulcrum of the UI.

    So, what’s the answer? In our consulting engagements, we’ve had success in winning over key executives with our design rationale, research, and our method. Of course, in order to do so, we often become assimilated into the organizational borg, agreeing to bend to its rules in the short term and making relatively minor impact on its priorities and time-tables. This approach is distasteful to Alan because it rings of appeasement and he’s a lot less willing to go along with strategies that, in his heart, he knows are wrong. Hence his insurgent approach.

    Eight years on, I’ve seen organizations in which nothing other than an insurgency would work, but I’ve also seen “business people” associated with our projects move on and up to positions of more and more influence. Like Brandon Schauer said on another blog, it’s really all about reading the situation and determining the right approach, but there’s no question that we’re much more successful when we’re allied with savvy, powerful people on the business side.

    Anyway, thanks for the interesting take, Peter.

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