Alan Cooper Speaks! Impressions from BayCHI April 2002

Written by: Brad Lauster

On the second Tuesday of every month, BayCHI, the Bay Area chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery’s (ACM) special interest group on Computer-Human Interaction convenes at the research center formerly known as Xerox PARC. Phew! Now that we’ve got that mouthful out of the way, let’s get on with it…

This month we were treated to a one-two punch from Cooper’s man at the helm, Alan Cooper, and their Director of Design Research and Development, Robert Reimann.

“As an Interaction Designer, I’m saddened to hear that “Interaction Design” will be dropped from the name of one of the leaders of our discipline.”A true master of the genre, BayCHI’s own, Richard Anderson, conducted the interview with Alan. For those of you who don’t know Alan Cooper, besides being one of the founders of Cooper Interaction Design, he is also the author of two of the only interaction design books for which you should be ashamed of yourself for not having read, “About Face” and, “The Inmates are Running the Asylum.”

During the interview, Alan touched on three main points:

  1. The difference between Interface Design and Interaction Design.
  2. The establishment of Interaction Design as a discipline.
  3. What comes next for Cooper and Interaction Design in general?

Despite a likening to Attila the Hun (on the Cooper website), Alan seems a pretty likable guy. This was evident, not only from the many laughs he got during the evening, but also from the near-contagious head nodding by audience members.

Much like the axioms that fill his first book, Alan’s speaking style is axiomatic, in that much of what he has to say is just so right on.

The evening’s discussion began with the statement that “terminology is a trap”. It seems that Alan has been trapped by terminology just as many of us have been, which will help explain the surprising announcement about the company that I will later reveal.

That said, I don’t think any of you will be surprised to hear that he considers Interface Design a subset of Interaction Design and Interaction Design a subset of something bigger still. After all, we all agree that it is the behavior and not the design of the interface that ultimately has the greatest influence on the usability of an interactive system, right?

I, for one, was hoping to hear more about the “something bigger” of which interaction design was a subset. Could Alan have been thinking of Experience Design here? It’s hard to say. Clearly Cooper’s Director of Design Research and Development, Robert Reimann, has been very active in the emerging Experience Design community, on the AIGA Experience Design list and elsewhere, but Alan’s focus seems a bit more on the business side of Cooper the company. As it would turn out, his avoidance of naming the “something bigger” was probably at least partially on purpose.

At this point the discussion moved quickly into a review of the establishment of interaction design as a discipline.

An interesting point that Alan made was that after “Inmates” came out, programmers didn’t respond in protest. He said it was more of an “abdication,” which I thought was an interesting choice of words, especially coming from someone who clearly has a lot of respect for software engineers. Alan said that software engineers and their managers simply didn’t understand the affect they had on the people who use the results of their work. Of course, as designers, we see the evidence all around us. The fingerprints of software engineers are all over nearly every artifact in our world.

This point was particularly axiomatic for me because (although I’m a bit weary to admit) I was in Wal*Mart last weekend when I stumbled on a toaster with a button on the top labeled “Cancel.” If that isn’t a case of product design by engineers, I don’t’ know what is!

Alan also covered some of the reasons why builders can’t be designers because of the conflict of interest involved, which readers will remember was covered in, “The Inmates are Running the Asylum.”

This led into a statement that Alan made about the job of the Interaction Designer, which he said was to make sure the appropriate users are addressed appropriately. I liked this definition, but was a bit surprised to hear that he doesn’t think the Interaction Designer should ultimately be held responsible for the satisfaction of the users.

Upon further thought, this assertion seems quite logical. We are after all, as Alan said, merely practitioners. There are simply too many business issues, over which an interaction designer has no control, to be held responsible for something of that magnitude.

This obviously begs the question: then who is responsible? Alan’s contention is that the position should be held by someone at the “C” level (as in CEO or CFO). This was the only time during the evening that Alan mentioned that oh-so-problematic word “experience,” when he reluctantly suggested that the person responsible for the satisfaction of the users might be called the Chief Experience Officer (CXO).

Bringing us to what was, without question, the biggest announcement of the evening, which was that Cooper the company was dropping Interaction Design from their name. The reason “interaction design” is being dropped from the name, according to Alan, is to better reflect all of the work that they do, which, as it turns out, is more and more some sort of business consulting.

What sort of business consulting you ask? Unfortunately, this first half of the BayCHI event was already over time, so we didn’t get to hear, but based on what Alan was alluding to for much of the evening, it’s probably safe to say that a good part of that consulting work will include consulting for companies who are interested in making a place for the Chief Experience Officer in their organizations.

Indeed, Cooperista Jonathan Korman is working on a particularly relevant book – one that will discuss “how businesses can structure themselves to create great products.” In fact, if you haven’t read Jonathan’s article entitled, “Putting people together to make good products,” from the September 2001 Cooper newsletter, you should (after you finish all the other articles on Boxes & Arrows, of course).

While this is a very exciting proposition, it is not a new idea. Certainly many of you are aware that Don Norman has been encouraging members of the design and usability communities to move their way into the upper management of their companies for a number of years.

As an Interaction Designer, I’m saddened to hear that “Interaction Design” will be dropped from the name of one of the leaders of our discipline, but at the same time I’m excited about the opportunities that may arise for fellow Interaction Designers as the result of Cooper’s new mission.

And what else can we all be, except ecstatic, about the idea of Cooper’s consulting work resulting in a company where the issues surrounding users’ satisfaction will be addressed by “C” level managers and design is considered more strategically as a business advantage.

Fellow Interaction Designers, my advice to you is to bone up on your BS (no, not that BS, I’m talking about Business Skills) and prepare for the open highways that Cooper will hopefully pave for us!

For more information:

Brad Lauster works for Stanford University as an Interaction Designer, but is better known for his ruminations about Experience, Interaction and Product Design on his website brad lauster (dot com). You can usually find him traipsing around the Bay Area, attending talks on the subjects of his website.