UX Leadership – The Alan Cooper Interview

In May 2016, I attended Alan Cooper’s keynote at UX Lisbon (UXLx). Among his noteworthy accomplishments, Alan founded Cooper, a leading design and business strategy consultancy with offices in San Francisco and New York, authored design treatises, About Face and The Inmates Are Running the Asylum and is hailed the “Father of Visual Basic.”

Since my early days as designer, I’ve been inspired by Alan’s thought leadership, and was honoured to speak with him one-on-one about the state of the software industry, where it’s headed, and about how designers can change the world.

Alan, thanks for chatting with me today. Your keynote was inspiring! Everyone knows you as an author, educator, designer, and Cooper’s Founder. However, yesterday we experienced your reflective and philosophical side. When did you develop these perspectives?

When I stopped programming, I was able to take a step back and gain new insights into the world of design. From taking a step back, I deduced that the world is in trouble.

Moving to Monkey Ranch, I had never been on a farm, and I didn’t know the first thing about agriculture. I was a foodie, so I knew a little bit about sustainability and that “organic” was good.

Since moving to the Ranch, I’ve immersed myself in new ways of looking at the food chain. It’s one thing to hand the food chain over to somebody who will earn money from it. It’s another thing to hand it to somebody who will make money off of it and also create foods that kill you and destroy the planet. It sounds extreme to say “kill you” and “destroy the planet,” but that’s the truth. Companies respond by saying, “It doesn’t make you sick. I just ate a hamburger and I’m not sick.” However, if you eat a lifetime of tainted hamburgers, you will be sick.

Is there anything uniquely Californian about your perspective?

No. This is a global problem that has built over time. A century ago, food was grown within ten miles of people’s homes. Every morning, in every city, family farmers went into town and sold food in public markets. Over the years, the availability of cheap fossil fuels changed our society’s approach to food. More and more small farms shut down, and food is grown in other countries, and shipped and trucked around. This reality has altered the way we grow food. Food is now oriented around transportation. And after 50 or 60 years, it changed the nature of the business of agriculture, and hence farms. Its effects were far-reaching: towns changed, roads changed, rail networks changed, stores that sell the food changed. Everything morphed.

Now there is a generation of young people saying they don’t want processed foods. In my talk, Katie the farmer is not a revolutionary, not political, and not out to change the world; she simply wants to cultivate good lettuce!  There is a network of itinerant group of young people passionate about sustainable agriculture called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms; its members are called “Wwoofers!” WWOOF offers an informal internship, where people sign up online, and then live on your farm for a couple weeks, work in your field, earn their way, swap information, and then go move on.

You are a natural problem solver, an ideator, and a generative thinker. Throughout your storied career, you’ve accumulated effective ways of analysing and conceptualising problems. How do you apply this thinking to agriculture?

Every problem has a boundary. We put boundaries around problems because that’s how we think. I agree with George Lakoff’s synopsis: we think by encapsulating our ideas. This allows us to make sense of the world. The issue is we become victims of our own encapsulation.

Let’s take your phone for example. Most people encapsulate this platform and machine and think: “this is what I can work on.” However, the real creativity comes from asking, “what if we throw this contraption out?” That’s how I approach every problem. If you tell me “here is the boundary to the problem,” the first thing I do is go outside the boundary. To me, boundaries are meant to be crossed. This is not because I’m wilfully destructive, but because that’s where the interesting solutions are.

You mentioned there are problems in the software industry that relate to agriculture. Can you explain?

We’re returning to a monarchical world. Many people in Silicon Valley are motivated by money, just like in agricultural societies. Programmers and designers are surely not thinking: “oh I want to go work for an unjust, opportunistic software company.” But, many are thinking: “I can go get a job at X Company and make tons of money.” If you go work for a company that is funded or owned by a tech oligarch, you become a caretaker for the lands of the monarch. You’re working for royalty, and royalty has no requirement to take care of people.

Should we change the system?

The system is already changing. That’s what we do every day. Every day we set bricks into the wall. As designers we are constructing the world we live in: we design, develop, and deploy.

How can designers change the system?

People think I’m a great interaction designer. The truth is, I’m okay. Others are much better than me. One thing I did do was realise that the practice of interaction design needed to exist. I saw that ten years before other people did.

Designers can bring new approaches to business management. If you look at the business management concepts that have come about in the last 20 years, you’ll find that many, if not most, came from tech practitioners. Agile, balance team, test-driven development, and continuous deployment all came from tech practitioners.

Yesterday you spoke about “alchemy” — the art of transformation. You said “software is a magic transformation agent. Everything it touches is changed utterly and completely. Everyone who designs, develops and deploys software is an alchemist too.” Please expand.

Stephanie Rieger offered a thought-provoking talk yesterday about emergent behaviour. It reminded me of watching Visual Basic grow and evolve. Visual Basic came into the marketplace as one thing, and transformed into something completely different. All of a sudden, once it was out in the marketplace, other things were created in lieu with it, which would otherwise never have been created. We created an API, but with that we created two markets. The same thing happened with Instagram. It started out as posting pictures. Then, people figured out a way to do commerce on it.  This is what happens when you create a platform: people do stuff with it that you had no idea could be done, or that anybody would even want to do. I don’t know what’s next.

Recently I watched Cameron Sinclair,  founder of Architecture for Humanity, speak. For the last 20 years, he’s been helping to create modular homes for migrants. He offered an impassioned plea, asking 800 designers to take what they know and apply it for the common good. Was that the goal of your talk?

Definitely. Our future is at stake. My two sons are turning 30, and my granddaughter is a year old. I see them headed for a world that I do not feel good about. We need to do something about it. It’s so easy to say “that’s someone else’s problem.” It isn’t. It’s our problem.

Back in the 80s, you were in the software business. Can you shed a little light into what that was like. What led up to the publishing of your two books The Inmates are Running the Asylum and About Face?

I never had a eureka moment that design was the future. I didn’t know that’s where I was headed when I set out. I had been programming for 16 years, and loved it. But it became increasingly clear that programming was just the hard work. In college, I wanted to be an architect. An architect takes a pen and draws a line on a page. The builder does the hard work of placing the bricks. And programming got to the point where it felt like brick laying. I wanted to draw the line.

In the 1980s, I stopped programming. There was no such thing as a software designer or an interaction designer. So in 1992, I put myself out there as a ‘designer for hire.’ I had only ever created and sold software. Now I was saying I was a designer who you could hire as a consultant and pay by the hour. And to my surprise, a few companies actually took me on. So I went in and began with a new approach: ‘okay I’m here to offer advice, but not to give them any code.’ Over the first few months, something shifted in my head, and I saw a viable profession. I knew that this was something that kids in the future would call themselves. I didn’t know what it was going to be called, but I knew it was going to be a thing. I knew it would be a discipline with rules, and best practices, and conferences. I knew it would become a thing that people would build their career around.

One day, the workload got too much. I suggested to my wife Sue that she join me at work for a day. She did. After work, we shared a glass of wine, and I asked her what she thought. She said, “this is a business.”

I was doing just fine working independently. We thought long and hard about whether setting up our own business was something we wanted to do. We both agreed it was, and we went about hiring our first designer, so we could delegate some of the work. Within a month, we had a designer. We were working out of our home, and he showed up to his first day of work at my house. My kids running were around, and Sue and I looked at each other and realised, “Oh, we need to get an office.” That’s how it began.

Cooper has scaled and grown over the years. Tell us about that.

Cooper has been around for 24 years. The first 18 years were smooth sailing. We were alone in a small industry, and were relatively well known based on our good work. I had written a couple books which had been successful.

Over the last 6-8 years, design agencies have sprung up everywhere. There weren’t any college courses on interaction design years ago. Now there are hundreds all over the world. There are thousands of companies hiring and competing for design talent. I can’t keep up with them all. The industry is white hot. At Cooper, until recently, we never did marketing. My books and public speaking were our marketing. That has to change. Now, for the first time, we are focused on sharing where we want to go as an organisation.

If you stand up and say I want to create a profession that doesn’t exist: that’s attractive to business people who think to themselves ‘there might be a competitive advantage to working with that guy.’ We are deciding what Cooper should look like 24 years from now.

In your keynote, you said “if your employer is only about profit, maybe you should find another employer.” Cooper U, Cooper’s training arm, seems a very worthwhile cause. You are empowering some of your competitors by educating them. That’s a very progressive way of thinking. Why Cooper U?

Cooper developed some significant tools that are really valuable and allowed our company to do things that others couldn’t do. Years ago, I had this client, a big company, that had worked with us for years. They asked us to teach them how to do what we do. I initially made the wrong choice: I said “no.” Within a few months, they were no longer our client. And I realised that decision was selfish, and wrong. From a business perspective, I made the right choice. I kept a tight control on our secret sauce. Through this experience, I learned that sometimes the right business decision isn’t the best decision for the world. The right thing is to shout your secret from the rooftops; share as widely as you can. Your secrets are only valuable if people learn them.

Take personas for example. Personas are a fairly simple concept. They are not rocket science. They crop up in hundreds of places. I thought to myself, somebody else is going to think of this. They might call it something else, but they’re going to tell the world, and then I’ll be the guy standing there yelling that I thought of them first. No one believes the guy who’s standing around claiming “I was first.  So I told the world about personas. Maybe I didn’t make money from it straight away — it’s a concept, you don’t make money selling a concept. But, I got credit for my invention, and that credit turned into attention, and attention turns into money. That was the reasoning behind my books and Cooper U.

Cooper U was initially an internal training exercise class we developed to train Cooperistas.  I was the spearhead; the guy who came in and said “let’s do this.”  I created a lot of the first course material and said, “let’s offer this outside.” It was an instant hit. Cooper is a medium-sized company, and Cooper U is a part of it. We aren’t making a huge amount of money from Cooper U, but we do just fine. If you look at many of our competitors, they are not innovators sharing their innovations. They are cash extraction engines. They are capitalising on people’s desire to get into interaction design. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, but it’s a very different animal.

What are you looking forward to?

I want to improve the transportation systems in our built environment. I believe that transportation is one of the most influential things in the world. There are apex predators in the world: we’re one — the wolf is another — and predators have a huge impact on the environment. We have an enormous influence on our environment. Transport systems have such an impact too. If you look at a US map, you will see our infrastructure, the world we live in, is designed around transportation networks. They affect everything from energy use, to pollution, to our social lives. I have loved taking the metro in Lisbon. In San Francisco, we have a pathetic subway system. It rarely goes where I need to go, so I never take it. I’m a typical Californian. I drive everywhere. And in your own car, it’s like being in an elevator, but a private elevator; nobody else gets in except for my family. So I’m isolated from the rest of humanity. And then I get out onto the road and I start mingling with other people in my urban environment, except we aren’t mingling at all. I’m an object to them and they’re an object to me. So if somebody drives in front of me, I honk my horn at them. I mean, I consider myself a nice guy, and yet I honk my horn at people when they do that to me. Because I’m in my private glass box.

But when I’m on the metro, all of a sudden, the train lurches ahead, and the person in front of me loses their balance, what do I do? I reach out and help them. And they smile and thank me. The communal nature of the train fundamentally changes the nature of our civil environment. I’m talking about public transport systems on fixed rails, so buses don’t cut it. Trains guide the built environment, and create a common area where people get together.

Yesterday I watched a presentation about Pixar and how Jobs designed their offices. He believed that people needed closed offices. So, he designed Pixar so that you always had to go to the central area for the bathroom or kitchen. They mandated interaction. Interaction is vital for a civil society. In particular, it’s vital to meet people who are different to you.

In the US, racism and intolerance are amplified because there is one dominant method of transport: automobiles. Automobiles exacerbate the problem of isolation.

Do you think your best work is yet to come?

I just finished my first cabinet with hand cut dovetail drawers. I think its pretty good work, so yeah!

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