Alan Cooper Speaks! Impressions from BayCHI April 2002

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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.


  1. Interface Design is part of Interaction Design?

    I don’t buy it. Never have, never will.

    I’ve always believed that “Interface Design” is the union of three fields: Visual Design, Interaction Design and Information Design.

    Visual covers typography, color, iconography and other graphical elements of the interface. Interaction covers the behavioral aspects of the interface, including workflow, system responses and how the product works with physical devices (like a mouse, stylus or keyboard). Information covers data display, organization, and structure of the interface.

    All three relate to the interface. Getting all three to work in harmony with each other is where a good interface comes from. Therefore, it’s these three fields that combine into what I consider to be true Interface Design.

    Now, I may just be splitting jargon hairs, and the bigger picture that I call Interface Design may simply just be Product Design, and that would make me just as happy. Maybe that’s what Cooper is growing towards. But to say Interface Design is a part of Interaction Design, which is a part of something bigger does those of us in the field no bit of good.

    Interaction Design or Experience Design will never cover the ground that includes a visual element or informational element. The words just aren’t broad enough, nor do they carry enough weight.

    Interface Design is seems to get a bad rap as a job title. Mostly, IMHO, because people haven’t taken repsonsiblity for what building the interface requires — A visual piece, an informational piece, and an interaction piece.

    But if the word needs to change, Experience Design is simply NOT it. Product Design is more like it.

    Andrei Herasimchuk
    Interface Designer

  2. Andrei,

    Actually, the AIGA is using the term Experience Design to mean exactly what you refer to as Interface Design, and they are an organization filled with visual and information designers. If anything, I think Experience Design may be *too* broad a term, in that it implicates every touchpoint that people have with a product and its brand, and implies that “experience” (whatever that really is) can be fully designed.

    Interface Design suffers from its history, in that it is too often considered synonymous with GUI design. Too frequently, GUI is considered something that can be added after the bulk of development is done, as more of a look-and-feel “paint job”. I think it’s important for us as practitioners to encourage the view that the work we do is strategic to businesses, and needs to be initiated at the start of the development cycle.

    Although I concur that Product Design (or better yet, Product Definition) is perhaps a better term, Experience Design, for the moment, seems to have some steam behind it (though arguments continue), and rather than spend the time arguing about what the perfect term is, I’d prefer to spend the energy encouraging people to see the business and human need for this type of work, and its strategic importance to product development.

    I would also like to generalize slightly your triad of “fields” to encompass the design of FORM, BEHAVIOR, and CONTENT, which I think is a bit more inclusive of such disciplines as Industrial Design and IA.

    Robert M. Reimann
    Director of Design R&D
    Cooper | Humanizing Technology

  3. Robert says: “Experience Design may be *too* broad a term, in that it implicates every touchpoint that people have with a product and its brand, and implies that “experience” (whatever that really is) can be fully designed.”

    So why are people in the field even considering Experience Design as a term?

    Experience Design is a fluff term, meaningless jargon, that does nothing more than add more meaningless jargon on top of already jargon-heavy job titles. The AIGA is doing us no favors if they are pushing this term.


  4. I think the one thing that Experience Design as a term gives us is a broader view of design as affecting not only products and services themselves, but also the way that products and services can be planned, marketed, and delivered in a user-centered fashion.

    A possible definition (among many) of Experience Design is:

    A term describing a “holistic” approach to design that encompasses all user/customer touchpoints with a product/client, including marketing/advertising communications, support/CRM, the product/service itself and how it behaves, and how the product ultimately interacts with the greater environment.

    An alternative (narrower) definition might be:

    A term describing the collection of practices and/or disciplines that work together to create interactive artifacts, systems, or environments, primarily used for the purpose of engaging a discussion in how said practices interrelate and collaborate.

    I think Experience Design is only a “fluff” term if we allow it to be. But in any case, the argument over names is far less interesting to me than what “it” (whatever it’s called) *is* and how it gets done.

    Robert M. Reimann
    Director of Design R&D
    Cooper | Humanizing Technology

  5. I’m surprised that Boxes & Arrows even has an article about Alan Cooper’s BAY-CHI talk. I thought he had nothing important to say. In fact, I would have walked out if Robert Reimann weren’t speaking afterwards.

  6. Wow! Nothing important?

    What could be more important than the one of the highest profile Interaction Design consultancies dropping “Interaction Design” from their name?

    Please explain!

  7. I enjoy learning about things that help me do my job better. News about company name changes and debate over job titles are useless to me.

    I got nothing out of Cooper’s talk. Reimann’s presentation was very good though! Too bad he didn’t have time to share more.

  8. While we obviously need ‘doers’, like Kathryn, it will be the strategists who will (as I already have) start conversations with Alan to begin to find ways to further the significance and authority of our discipline by gaining C-level recognition and funding. [I keep ‘planting the question’ regarding the differentiators between ‘experience’ and ‘interaction’ and am yet to get any…let alone reasonably defensible…response from those in the ‘experience’ camp.]

    Thanks Brad for filing this report and for giving me the inspiration that I needed to start the dialog with Alan. While Kathryn is busy ‘doing business’, we’ll focus on ‘creating business’ for the benefit of all of our futures…both are needed.

  9. I’ve encountered many people who see “Interface” design and forms and text, so I often have to explain that “User Experience” addresses the whole continuum, from the look and words to the functionality. This applies to my particular niche, search engines. It doesn’t matter how pretty or easy to use a search engine is, if it doesn’t find the information you want, it’s no good.

  10. “It doesn’t matter how pretty or easy to use a search engine is, if it doesn’t find the information you want, it’s no good.”

    It’s comments like these that make me believe that there are too many people that either do not understand what “interface design” is, or who lack an understanding of what “experience design” is *supposed* to be.

    I mentioned in my first message that I thought Product Designer was a more appropriate term than Interface Designer for what I do. I’ll re-iterate that point.

    Product Design, as I’ll now say, combines the three disciplines required to create a fully-fleshed out product. Areas that different people seem to focus on in our fields: visual, informational and interaction.

    If your company focuses on one more so than the others, you do not have a wholistic product, or one that shines professionally, IMHO. To say that it doesn’t matter how pretty something is, or how easy to use it is, means you lack an understanding of how a whole product is designed.

    A case in point is Google. Sure, the thing is fast, it finds good information, but with just the TINIEST improvement in visual design, and the TINIEST improvements in how the results are displayed, how the pagination works, and how the site is organized now that it does more than search, would make the product a Volkswagen Passat versus the old-school boxy Honda Accord it currently is.

    “And that’s the double-truth… Ruth.”


  11. Andrei – I agree about the importance of the details in any/every aspect of product design, as you illustrated with Google. It’s these details that get people to use (more accurately, re-use) one product over another, especially when there isn’t much else to differentiate them (in this case, retrieving information on the Internet).

    I also agree with a take on IA as product design in many respects. It’s not just the information that has to be architected in a single GUI, user experience, etc. It’s also the boundaries among features in products (speaking of modular, salable products here) — the way they can be bundled and marketed. Examples are content services (news feeds, web widgets, private label solutions, etc.), asp-model apps, and tiered services such as subscription v. free versions of online publications. So the IA has to have a strong business sensibility as well.

  12. Andrei, I disagree with your latest comment, from April 22. My disagreement is based on:

    1. Avi’s assertion was correct: “…if [the search engine] doesn’t find the information you want, it’s no good.”

    2. For some products, it’s silly to focus equally on “visual, informational and interaction.” For example, in the case of a search engine, the presentation/visual design of the results really is ancillary. Regardless of the layout, typography, etc., if I search for tomatoes and get back pointers to potatoes, the product is useless.

    Please explain why we should focus on all three of your aspects equally.

    Thanks to everyone for the comments! Discussion is good.

  13. “For example, in the case of a search engine, the presentation/visual design of the results really is ancillary.”

    I can see Tufte turning in his grave… If he were dead of course.

    Your disagreement suggests you don’t understand the full impact of the visual (choice of type, color palette used, iconography and emotional impact the design passes to the user) or informational aspect of the product design (how it is organizaed after results are found and such), in this case, with a search engine.

    Which is fine. In my experience, most people in this field (of IA, Interface Design, whatever) tend to focus on only one aspect of a product’s design, and not understand the implications of the others.

    Think of it this way:

    When making a movie, there are director’s who focus on the story more than the photography, or director’s who focus more on the production design than the music, or the directors who focus more on the editing than the acting.

    And all these director’s make fine movies, that make money, and that people enjoy. And there’s nothing with that.

    But if you want to make Citizen Kane, or Lawrence of Arabia, or The Godfather, or anything that excels beyond the normal and becomes something extraordinary, something that defines the field, you better focus on all of them to create the full movie.


  14. I suppose I could respond to Andrei, but I get the feeling that we’re saying the same thing in each our own way. (…a big step for me since I love to argue for the sake of argument.)

    I’d like, if I could, to direct the discussion towards the topic of design as business strategy and the idea of interaction designers moving into the ranks of management within their companies.

    What resources are there for aspiring design strategists? What would you do if you were designing a position for someone responsible for all end-users’ satisfaction? Where would you start?

  15. “I suppose I could respond to Andrei, but I get the feeling that we’re saying the same thing in each our own way. (…a big step for me since I love to argue for the sake of argument.)”

    Andrei: No we’re not.
    Brad: Yes we are.
    Andrei: Yes we are!
    Brad: No we’re not!


    Anyway, design as a business strategy works best if we start evangelising the role we play as “Product Designers,” IMHO. To go the route of “Experience Designer” is both a bit too fru fru a concept for mainstream corporate America (in my experience) and begs the argument “How can one reliably design an experience when everyone experiences products in their own unique ways.” But that’s just my two cents.

    Many companies these days have more of an executive type that is repsonsible for “Product” related issues it seems, and if anything, these people need a direct report for the design-side of things, someone who holds an equal vote as their counterparts in engineering, marketing and product management. (And this person needs to be more than just someone who is a glorified Graphic Designer / Art Director.)

    In the past where I’ve worked, I specifically gotten myself reporting to an executive in engineering (like I did at Adobe, where I reported to the V.P., and the other places I’ve worked). This I have found works. The few places where I have reported to someone in Marketing have failed spectacularly.

    One article that would be interesting for Boxes and Arrows would be to find some higher-up in the automobile industry, and get them to discuss their business organization and design philosophy. I’m of the opinion that the manner with whcih car companies do this, with a product that is just as much about design as it about the engine, is the direction the high-tech world will move to, knowingly or not.

    From what I know of that field, the designers hold equal control as the engineers and marketing types, and the head of the design department sits on the executive team.

    A place to look?


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