Industry Viewpoints: An Interview with Alan Cooper

One of the major shifts in Atomic’s history came in 2012 when a contingent of Atoms attended Cooper’s first UX Bootcamp. Cooper is a design agency founded and led by Alan Cooper, an erstwhile programmer and father of Visual Basic.

Alan is known for his role in humanizing interaction design through a set of practical tools which help makers understand user goals. He is also the author of the book About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design, which continues to be required reading for Atomic Object’s design team.

Jonah Bailey Interviewing Alan Cooper

The 2012 Bootcamp was intended to further inculcate user-centered design within Atomic’s iterative development approach to creating custom software. It marked a before/after moment in the life of our company and served to form a friendship between our two organizations.

Earlier this summer, as we moved into our new building in Grand Rapids, we opened up a nomination process for naming our new conference rooms. Among other influential people, I nominated Cooper. In September, he and I connected over video chat to discuss this honor, the state of the tech industry, and ultimately, the world. What follows are excerpts from our conversation.

You’ve had a big impact on Atomic’s design approach. We want to be a 100-year-old company. As we look to the future, which people or phenomena do you see as influencers that are going to shape the next generation of design?

I think it’s really cool that you say you want to be a 100-year-old company. We’ve always been really appreciative of your corporate values—Carl’s values—throughout the organization. You’re a strongly ethical company; you support your people; you’re in it for the long-term; you want to be a family, and it’s all about the quality of the work and the happiness of clients.

There are many software companies out there looking for a quick buck these days, and you guys are just a light in the darkness.

Anyway, I think we’re going to have a really interesting problem facing us because design is the latest fad. It’s like that old curse, “May you live in interesting times.” May your discipline catch on. We’re the current fad; we’re the Uggs of today.

There’s gonna be backlash, because you can’t just slap a coat of design paint on and have it be any good. Lots and lots of companies are spending lots and lots of money on design because that’s what they know they need…. and they bring in some designers to set up their design center of excellence, and nothing happens.

You can already start to hear the drumbeats of the backlash against design. I think that what we have is a really interesting battle in front of us. We need to prove that design is worth having, even though we’ve already won the argument. Now we have to win it again, because people are going to say, “We tried design, and it didn’t work.”

You have to read “We Tried Baseball,” Ron Jeffries’ essay. It basically describes the problem, which is that people go, “Oh, we need some of that design stuff!” They go out and grab a design-sort-of-looking-thing. And they do what they think it must mean to have design in their world, and then they discover it doesn’t work.

It’s like baking a cake, and saying, “You know, I don’t need any of that salt or sugar stuff, ’cause that’s not good for me. I’ll just bake a cake without it.” And then they don’t like the cake they made and blame the cake.

You can’t just make it up as you go along. It’s like programming. You can’t say, “Oh, I don’t like this syntax, I’m gonna not use those stupid semi-colons.” That doesn’t work! It’s like saying you don’t like cars because you have a thing against wheels. If you wanna write in C, you gotta deal with semi-colons. If you wanna do design, there are certain things you have to do.

There a lot of things happening in the world today that are of concern to you, and you’re based in the epicenter of the tech industry, Silicon Valley.

As you look at the tech industry and the software industry as a whole, what’s your biggest concern for us?

Let me put it this way, the biggest concern I have about the tech industry is the biggest concern I have about the world in general. In fact, I don’t see any difference between the two.

It’s that there are people with so much money that they can buy sufficient amounts of power to do what they want that makes more money and power for them without having to show any concern or care for any of the people affected by it negatively.

You can see this in the Flint water crisis, and you can see this in Peter Thiel throwing his weight behind Donald Trump, and you can see it in something like Amazon, which is emerging today as a trust of greater strength and power than Standard Oil was when the federal government broke it up 70 years ago.

People kind of knew about it 70 years ago, because there was such a thing as a media. Journalism existed back then. Journalism and the media no longer exist, because they’ve been victims of the exact same runaway, unrestrained capitalism.

I think the exact same thing is happening in the tech industry. Which is to say, the tech industry is utterly controlled by billionaires. When I started my first software company—it was one of the very first software companies ever created to do software for microcomputers—it was in 1976, and I was a 24-year-old, wet-behind-the-ears, high school dropout. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was making it up as I went along, but I discovered I could buy a computer.  I said, “I can program this. I’m gonna do something,” and I started writing code. I could write anything I wanted.

In the next 20 to 30 years, what became very clear was that anything that I could write—or anything anyone else could write—if it was useful for people, you could sell it and make money. This was a very reasonable model of entrepreneurial commerce. It was good for the entrepreneur and it was good for the buying public.

Well, today, you can’t do that. The economics of our world are set up in such a way so that if I wanted to go out and create an innovative product, there are multiple barriers in the way. This is one of my favorite examples: You bring out your cell phone, and you say, “I took a picture the other day. Let me show it to you! Well wait a minute, hold on, hold on… I’ll get it. It was this great picture. I can’t find it.” You get the idea. So I say to myself, “Boy, I could write a program that could solve that problem.” But there’s no way to do it. I could write the code; I could invest the process, but I can’t bring it to market. Nobody will invest in it, and there’s no path to market for a product like that, because in order to do that, I’d have to violate Apple’s proprietary little garden. I would be sued for patent infringement by all the big guys. I mean, I could write a little app, but if I actually wanted to write a program that actually did something that helped people, these days I can’t.

This is a huge problem. What we’ve done is we’ve handed a loaded weapon to these guys who are not our friends.

Let’s switch gears and talk about how you got into education. Cooper U is a big part of what you do in 2016. What prompted you to get into education within the tech industry?

It’s interesting. I’m kind of a competitive guy, and we at Cooper years ago invented a lot of really powerful tools for doing something nobody else would do. There’s a powerful argument to be made that we should keep our secrets to ourselves. But of course I’ve written books about this stuff, and at a certain point I went, “Well, who am I kidding?”

I began to realize that a) I could make money, and b) I would do the world a favor if I could find a way to teach this stuff. We had developed this coursework internally to teach our own designers, and what we decided was to create a two-week long course. And we compressed that into a one-week course, but it turned out offering a five-day course was problematic ’cause then we asked people to fly on two consecutive weekends. So we changed it to a four-day course. That became our foundational course, and that’s what we built Cooper U on. It was very successful from the very beginning.

Has your understanding of the practice of persona creation changed over time? If so, how?

People misunderstand personas. They learn about personas, but what they learn about is not what I could call a persona. Most people who create and use personas are doing some bogus process that doesn’t work very well, and that’s why a lot of people go around saying, “Personas don’t really work that well.” That’s because they’re not actually using personas.

I’m looking forward to continuing this conversation. Please share your comments if you want to join in.