- Artwork by Eli Jorgensen
Check out Part II after this.
Alan Cooper teaches us what it means to be a good ancestor. He enlightens us to why it’s so hard to build good software. He reveals how money trumps good UX and ethics far too often. He explains why UX is not about finding the best location for a hamburger menu, but about solving the big problems that exist for the user and the business. He also inspires us to consider (and potentially redirect) the footprints we’re leaving now, for the generations to come.
Alan Cooper wants to be a good ancestor. That is why he is the co-creator of the “Ancestry Thinking Lab”. It’s an organization dedicated to finding and teaching practical methods for assuring that technology products behave in an ethical manner. This is just his latest effort in a long career as an inventor and thought leader in the world of software. In 2017, Alan and his wife, Sue, sold Cooper, the company they had founded 25 years earlier. It was the very first interaction design consulting firm.
Early on, he established the basic design methods that are used across the industry today and helped to popularize the notion that digital technology shouldn’t terrorize its human users. In particular, his invention, design personas, is almost universally used in the field. He shared his tools, knowledge, and experience in two best-selling books, still in print and widely referenced. The company’s new owners are a European design firm, Designit, owned by Wipro, a tech company based in Bangalore, India.
In 1988 Alan invented a dynamically extensible visual programming tool and sold it to Bill Gates, who released it to the world as Visual Basic, arguably the most successful programming language ever. This is how Alan earned the sobriquet, “The Father of Visual Basic.” He started his first software company in 1976 and produced what has been called “The first serious business software for microcomputers.”
In 2017, Alan was named a Fellow of the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley, California. In 1998 he was named a Visionary by the Silicon Valley Forum, and in 1995 Bill Gates named him the first Windows Pioneer. In 2011, Cooper left Silicon Valley to live on a 50-acre former dairy farm in the rolling hills north of San Francisco where he continues to advocate for more humane technology.
Fun fact about Alan is he’s a former aircraft pilot, and a sheep and chicken farmer.
- There’s no such thing as UX Design? (8:13)
- Why do you put so much emphasis on Interaction Design? (24:41)
- How important are design patterns? (31:35)
- How do you build a product you can’t prove is valuable yet? (45:58)
- Why are there so many bad products in the world? (50:50)
Alan Cooper’s Twitter
Alan Cooper’s Website
The Inmates Are Running the Asylum [BOOK]
The Change Function [BOOK]
Jason Ogle: Welcome to User Defenders. Alan, I am super excited to have you on the show today.
Alan Cooper: Jason, it’s my pleasure to be here. I just want to say that the Ancestry Thinking Lab is kind of an aspirational creation at this point. What we’re hoping is that some large organization will come along and fund us right now. It’s sort of the wild I dream of my colleague Renato Verdugo and myself, but it’s clearly something that the industry is wrestling with right now and needs help on and we’re trying to help.
Jason Ogle: Yeah, and I am very interested in learning more about that and I have a feeling our conversation will veer more into exactly what ancestry thinking is. So I’m excited to learn more about that as well. So, let’s just kick things off. I’ve got a lot of questions for you and I just can’t wait to get into this with you. So Alan, in a recent tweet you said something really interesting and maybe I’d say pretty provocative and that’s not alien to you of course, you definitely don’t mince words and I really appreciate that about you. So, you said something though they kind of, you know perked me up a little bit and made me curious because; I don’t know if I agree with this, but I’d love to hear your answer. You said there is no such thing as UX Design. What did you mean by that?
Alan Cooper: I meant I was angry and frustrated and I was venting and I’m sorry, I do this stuff. You know, Twitter is the stream of consciousness broadcasting machine and sometimes I broadcast with my inner voice and I shouldn’t. Here’s the thing is that to me, interaction design, it’s a terminology hell and you can give any definition you want to any of these words. I’m not arguing over the terminology. By the way, I’ve written blog posts about this because this topic comes up over and over and over again. What I’m railing against is I’m railing against people who saying “I’m a user, therefore I can do user design”. You know, they’re just saying all it takes is a little empathy, a little care and some common sense and that’s bullshit.
It doesn’t take empathy and caring common sense, it takes training and expertise and talent and experience and to be an interaction designer. Interaction designer happens to be the term that I prefer. Okay. And the term that I don’t prefer is user experience design. So whenever I’m angry at lightweights, you know, mailing it in, not actually doing the hard work of designing good software and fighting the good fight to get good user interaction design, good technology behavior out into the field.
What I do is I of course attribute that to user experience designer. Whenever I see really wonderful craft, very well done and well positioned in the industry, I go well that’s the interaction design. So you have to understand that’s my prejudice, but what I mean by that is I just see so much of moving buttons around on the screen and putting nice wood grain side boarders onto your steel morphic application, instead of actually understanding your users and what they’re trying to do and helping them do it through good design and so that was me. It was a cry for help and I did it again just the other day and then I just have to smack myself. I go, why do I do this? Why do I, you know, but what happens is I see people going, you know we shipped this garbage and they don’t like it, what’s wrong? And that’s what I go, but there’s no such thing as UX design, because you know, if that happened, it’s because you weren’t actually doing what you were supposed to do because this stuff, it’s hard, but it’s not any harder than engineering and engineering seems to get done. The problem is that a lot of this stuff doesn’t get…
Here the thing, interaction design to me is about knowing who your user is, that’s a huge problem right there. Understanding what their desired end state is, another huge problem, and then understand why they want to get there, another huge problem. All of these are enormous problems that take a lot of training and a lot of skill to get to and in some domains are really complex and difficult. But very much that’s about being user centered. Okay. But so much of what is being taught in schools today. So much of what passes for interaction design is actually a designer centric practice, not a user centered practice. It’s about moving post – it around on the board. It’s about coming up with really creative and interesting concepts and arguing over the relative merits and then doing a/b rolling between, you know, one designer’s cool concept versus another designer’s cool concept, and it’s not about your cool concepts. It’s about understanding what really, you know, clunky vision that the user might have in their head and understanding it.
So, this is what I rail against what I’ve talked about that when I said there’s no UX design because what UX design means to me is it means being designer-centric. It means it’s about your quirky glasses and your tattoos and not about your users.
Jason Ogle: So, and I appreciate that answer Alan. I think there’s a balance or to like as far as empathy goes, like I feel like some of the best design that we’ve seen has been a result also of having a designer having a lot of empathy for the users of what they’re designing. And I always think of Doug Dietz who design GE’s discovery MRI, right. Using design thinking and you know, and of course there are a lot of buzzwords in our field too and I know you’re all too well aware of that Alan, you know UX has become a buzzword. Like you said, a lot of us think that UX is really just moving pixels around on the screen and we know it’s certainly a lot more than that, but there are times when we have to do that too and we’re not going to change our titles every time we have to do production work. Right? So, there’s kind of I don’t know, there’s a debacle I think here and I think user experience means something different to everybody, you know? Do you want to speak to that?
Alan Cooper: Yeah! User experience means something different to everybody. Yeah, I agree. And so I don’t know why, you know, rage against the light. I mean, you know, it’s like me yelling at the sunrise. [Laughter] I’ve noticed this phenomenon, you know, over my many years in the tech industry and what it is – is that with each new advance of technology, more powerful tool sets that come generation by generation, what happens is the old guys, you know, like back in the 60s that were the guys who program computers with jumper cables and then when the guys came in who could program them with ones and zeros, the jumper cable guys look down their noses and said, oh my God, they’re lightweight they’re using. And then then came the assembler language guys that all the zero and one guys that used to be flipping switches on the front panel of the computer went, oh my God, lightweights.
And so I call it the invasion of the lightweights; each generation, you know, looking at this new generation. It’s like you know, I did the bulk of my work in “C”. “C” was my programming language and its manly language, you know. And so when the basic programmers came along, I looked down my nose at them, I said, Oh God, they’re lightweights
Jason Ogle: You’re shaving with an axe.
Alan Cooper: No, they are shaving with a triple safety razor. I mean,
Jason Ogle: You’re shaving with an axe. Though, you are.
Alan Cooper: I’m shaving with an axe. Exactly, a dull axe; a rusty dull [Laughter] It’s the walking through the snow uphill both ways when I was a kid kind of thing – the invasion of the lightweights. And so, but there’s a kernel of truth to that because the fact is that a lot of young designers leave school having learned designer-centric techniques, which is about prototyping and testing and which is the generative work is it comes from the designer. Yes, it’s bounced off of users, but bouncing your ideas off users is not the same thing as generating your ideas from the needs of the user.
And words like empathy to me or excuses for lack of discipline, it’s like somebody who says, well, I don’t really – it’s like a welder saying, well, I don’t know how to get these to get good penetration on these welds, but isn’t this sculpture beautiful? You know? Well, yeah, that’s a beautiful sculpture. But the thing about the demands on a sculpture are different than the demands on say a submarine or a space craft, you know, or a vehicle, you know, that it has to have to travel at high speeds.
And I think our software doesn’t need to be, I mean aesthetically pleasing is nice, but I don’t think that’s the critical element. I think the critical element is that the welds have to be sound and what I’m seeing more and more is a kind of a retro grade movement away from good interaction design. I mean the errors that I see in software today were errors that were clearly pointed out and I supposedly vanquished 20, 25 years ago and they’re coming back and I think they’re coming back because young people were coming into the industry, it’s the invasion of the lightweights, and they’re taught that if you’ve got empathy for the user, if you can feel for them while you’re doing moving your posit notes around, that’s good enough. And to me I say that’s not good enough.
Jason Ogle: I’m just thinking about this and I love that the invasion of the light weights. I’m an older guy myself and I’ve seen a lot of change in the industry. I started doing this like right after the world wide web really started exploding publicly, so I’ve seen a lot too. I tend to have my kind of like, you know, maybe you know, that SNL skit, “back when I was young, you know, we did it, this is how we did it and we liked it”, you know, like “get off my lawn”, you know, like I tend to have those tendencies as well, but the cool thing about that, about the invasion of lightweights is that whole concept is, I mean grit is in this work, right? And I feel like a lot of us old guys, older guys, you know, we have more grit maybe because we’ve been through a lot, we’ve seen a lot. We used to do things a lot harder. It used to be a lot harder to do things right.
Like you said; the jumper cables versus just pulling a keyboard up. So, I feel like – the challenge with that is that a lot of the folks that lead grizzled, let’s say grizzled folks that are in this field. Would you say that a lot of these folks are having trouble holding onto their jobs? Are they having trouble getting jobs in this field? because of kind of we’ve always done it that way and maybe not willing to you know, kind of changed some of the old habits, so to speak and innovate forward and jump into kind of what, how things are done now?
Alan Cooper: No, I don’t. I mean, I see it the opposite. I mean, I do see that the grizzled old veterans are having trouble but I think that’s because there’s a lot of ageism in Silicon Valley, and Silicon Valley is not a place, it’s a state of mind. I mean the Silicon Valley is the tech world all over. But I actually see it different is that if you look at – Apple software is a delightful example. I mean, I used to use Microsoft as an example all the time. I don’t much anymore just because; they’re kind of on the trailing edge, but Apple has really gone this trajectory of understanding that putting up silicon dialogue boxes and the hiding information is not a good thing, but as they’ve gone generation upon generation of designer at Apple, the later versions, the more recent versions of their programs are filled with all that old cruft that Apple got rid of 15 years ago and it’s coming back and what they’re doing is that they’re committing the sins that they called out as since years ago, and they’re recapitulating the same crap.
And so to me, I don’t believe it’s the old guys reasserting themselves. I think this is the young guys who are in fact not taught how to do interaction design because what they’re doing is intuitive, and intuition is an incredibly shitty tool for interaction design because your intuition tells you that if you do an action that is highly dislocating, you know, like deleting a file, what you do is you put it a confirmation, you say, are you sure you want to delete that file? That’s what your intuition tells you. But we’ve pretty much proven conclusively over many years of software development. That’s a really crappy solution that doesn’t solve the problem, it slows everybody down, it’s really wrong and bad and that isn’t how you do it. And yet more and more I see products putting up dialog boxes for actions like that or even for innocent little actions like, are you sure you want to change the name of that file?
And we know that’s wrong. So, where does that come from? I really think it’s coming from designers who’ve never been taught the fundamentals. And there’s so many more designers working today at product companies than there were 20 years ago. I mean 20 years ago it was a fight to get rid of confirmation dialogue boxes because there were engineering and marketing people saying, well, that’s how we’ve always done it. People expect that. What will they do if they don’t get a confirmation box? And we finally won that battle and the confirmation boxes went away. Now they’re coming back. This is not the old folks. The old folks fought that war.
Jason Ogle: Yeah! Well, you know, we talked about interaction design and we were going to continue to, but I put something out on Twitter recently and it was the quote I’ve been reading, your wonderful inmates are running the asylum and I got to tell you, and I’m not trying to inflate your head at all, but you are so ahead of your time when you wrote this. I mean, the stuff you’re talking about, I’m reading it now you know, I don’t know, nearly 20 years later and the stuff you’re talking about now is as relevant, if not even more relevant now than it was then.
So much emphasis on business and just stuff that a lot of us kind of green web designers weren’t even thinking about at the time, but I put this quote out there that I just loved and it got a little bit of attention there. It’s just he said like putting an Armani suit on Attila the Hun, interface design only tells you how to dress up an existing behavior. And my question is you put a lot of emphasis on interaction design, even with the first question. You prefer to call it interaction design, even more than, you know, far more than like UI or UX design. I kind of understand more why you do that, but I guess I want to ask you why do you do that?
And also kind of the piggy piggyback question to that is, what can you tell our defenders listening who are newer designers, they’re younger folks, may be and they are kind of wondering. How do I you know, as I said in the tweet, how do I put – they’ll consider the behavior and interaction with the product first? What are kind of some best practices? I know that, like you said, you can’t, this is a lot of experiences that you can encapsulate it with one answer, but how do you direct some of these folks are wondering how can I design the best experience and consider instead of just dressing up a pig so to speak?
Alan Cooper: Well, thank you by the way.
Jason Ogle: Absolutely!
Alan Cooper: You know, the book was published in 1999, but I wrote it in 1998, so it has been 20 years.
Jason Ogle: Wow! Congratulations, by the way.
Alan Cooper: Thank you! I know I’ve looked at the book, I mean the publisher has said, ‘’don’t you want to update it?’’ I look at it and I go, you know, the examples are pretty old, but the points are the same. I don’t see a lot of difference there. I mean, there are a few things I’d change, but yeah, I mean it’s still a real thing. Look, 25, 30 years ago when I and a few other people started to, you know, to shout, you know, from the trenches, hey, it’s not just engineering and it’s not just sales, there’s something else. It’s about, I mean, there was the academia who is saying, well the user matters, but the academia was studying how bloody the users where. They weren’t proactively saying how do we make the users less bloody. And that’s what the practitioners like me were doing as we were saying there’s got to be a way around this.
And we weren’t taking anybody’s job away from them, but we were doing was, we were saying there’s a job here that doesn’t exist. And so practitioners of today have a very different challenge because everybody knows that the way the product presents itself is a thing. Back then it wasn’t even a thing. We were saying, hey, the way the product presents itself has to be considered as a unique thing over and above functionality and, you know, getting rid of bugs and over and above, you know, selling features to clients. But today, young people, those are the same invasion of the lightweights. They not only have to fight for the rights of the user, but they have to fight for their own rights. And there are a lot of people saying, well, no, this is the way I want the product to look and to behave because I have opinions on that.
And there’s just an enormous amount of misinformation out there about how it’s done. So to me, interaction design is about being user centered, but to be user centered, you can’t sit in your office and be user centered. You have to actually go out and watch your user actually work in see to, you have to see what they do, you have to watch what they do, and you have to study and learn. And does that mean going out with a questionnaire and this does not mean, you know, synthesizing a bunch of stuff in the lab and then using users as Guinea pigs.
It’s about really understanding what their primary motivations are. I mean, pretty much everybody uses your product because they have a goal that is in parallel to the goal of your product, but it’s not the same. And so what you have to do is not look at what your product is doing because then you see the parallel path. What you have to do is you have to look and see what the user’s doing and then you can see how your parallel path can get closer to the real path.
And way too much stuff out there I see is about the expression of the designer’s vision. And I don’t give a rat’s ass about the designer’s vision, the same way I don’t give a rat’s ass about the engineers. We could have the program do this or we could have a do that or we could add this feature, that would be cool. You know, I mean that was the battle that I bought 25 years ago, but now I’m fighting the battle of, well, I think it should be on the left-hand side. It’s like is give a shit, where do you think it should be. The user doesn’t give a shit where you think it should be. What matters is where should it be, not what you think, and the way you figure out where it should be.
I mean, when you start actually looking at the behavior of products and how people interact with them, what you find usually is that whatever crap you’ve put there, the users don’t want. What the users tend to want is not that you change the controls from a menu item to a button or to a direct manipulation, but generally what they want you to do is change the entire mental model to be one that’s more consistent with the way they conceive of the problem they’re working with. So, you know, if you’re doing back office software, you conceive of things in terms of the paper flow that has to go for auditing purposes, but that’s not people who are working in the trenches in business can see that they go, oh my God, I’ve got to get approval to this person.
Jason Ogle: Yeah, I love that sentiment, Alan. And I agree with you as far as getting out of your seat. And that’s probably seems like one of the biggest challenges for a lot of designers. I raised my hand first, you know, because we can make a lot of assumptions and sometimes we can lean on design patterns, maybe too much, because there are intuitive design patterns, thankfully that have obviously evolved over the years. But generally, a lot of users have gotten used to seeing things in certain locations, which you say, I mean because you were saying user doesn’t give a crap where the thing is, but maybe they do it. Like if somebody, you know, if you forget to put it back Arrow on an APP, that’s the problem of course. Like how important are design patterns as well in this process for interaction design?
Alan Cooper: Well that’s not interaction design, that’s interface design and patterns are vital. We were talking earlier about Autodesk. I’m wrestling with Fusion 360 trying to learn it. I bought a 3D printer and I’m really excited and eager and enthusiastic to learn parametric CAD, and so I’m submitting myself to the torture of ascending the learning cliff of Autodesk’s products. But the thing about it is there product, you know, 30 years ago was a 2D product and then they went 3D by maintaining this model that what you’re doing is you’re drawing a blueprint, but then you’re sort of extruding it into 3D space and it’s not at all clear that’s the proper model. They have all kinds of interface gadgets and idioms and stuff and some of them are really good and some of them are really bad, but that isn’t the point.
The point is that due the CAD professionals think in terms of blueprints and extruding them into 3D space. There’s no doubt that AutoCAD has a huge multibillion dollar investment in that vision. But it’s not at all clear and there are also many hundreds of thousands of mechanical engineers out there who have also made the investment to learn this way of thinking. Okay! But is that the right way of thinking? That is what interaction designers do. They ask and answer questions like that. They don’t talk about, I mean, there’s a certain point. Yeah, they move buttons around on the screen, but that’s not the essence of what interaction design is. The essence of interaction design is how does the user think about this and are we presenting it in a way that’s consistent with that. And this is why I make angry tweets because they talk about user experience. And what they’re really talking about is whether it should be a hamburger menu or a full awful menu or a tossed salad menu and they’re not talking about user’s mental models, they’re not talking about how people conceive of stuff.
Jason Ogle: That’s Fascinating!
Alan Cooper: Let me give you an example. There’s billions and billions of dollars expended on electronic health records. And they’re all a giant waste and everybody suffers through crappy electronic health records. Okay. All the doctors, all the back office texts at clinics, all the individual people are trying to, you know, go to the hospital or go to the clinic and see their doctor. They’re all sweat this crap. Okay. One of the fundamental misconceptions about electronic health records is that they belong to the health provider and this has been metastasized by laws and regulations. Okay. Somebody needs to come along and say no, they belong to the individual, they belong to the patient, they belong to the person, and Instead of the person giving the care provider permission to share their health records with a specialist. Instead, the individual person should own emphasis their own health records and should learn the records to the healthcare provider and give the healthcare provider permission to annotate them or modify them or add to them.
Now the thing is, what happens is; everybody looks at a suggestion like that and says, oh my God, but you’d have to build this and you’d have to build that and people would lose their stuff, and how would you take care of it? Well, that’s what we do right now anyway.
Jason Ogle: I mean, we have a better record on iPhone. We have a medical history.
Alan Cooper: There’s a just mountain of crap that we have to go through except the bottom line. It’s about healthcare providers owning those records and what that does is that colors everything about healthcare records. So it’s going to be equally hard work if the individual health care recipient owns those records, but it’s going to flavor everything very differently and it’s going to empower health care recipient rather than empowering the healthcare provider and this is what interaction design needs to do. Now, here’s the thing that is really hard for an individual to stand up and make an assertion like that because what you’re doing is you’re going against billions of dollars of some cost.
Jason Ogle: That’s madness!
Alan Cooper: Yeah, but see, but this is what I expect from a good interaction designer. You know, I expect them to ask those big questions. I mean, the thing is I don’t expect an interaction designer stand up and say health records should belong to the patient and get health records too now belong to the patient. I don’t expect that to happen, but I do expect them to stand up and say that because of enough of them stand up and say that over and over and over, people will begin to think about it in a certain point somebody with money or cloud or an idea of being, you know, of innovating and being disruptive is going to come along and make that change and build a product that does that and it’s going to be hugely successful and they’re going, going to sweep through the industry and pick up all the marbles, it’s going to be a great thing.
But instead, what I see designers do is they don’t think at that level, they don’t work at that level. Instead they think about – they don’t question the idea of who owns the health records. Instead they just spend all day wrestling with the problems that arise from the fact that the patient doesn’t own their own records. I don’t want to turn people into revolutionaries. I want to turn people to be aware of the shortcomings, you know, and talk about the shortcomings. That’s all because that’s the start, that’s how this stuff happens if people begin to talk about it. Right now this stuff is swept under the rug. People don’t question models.
Jason Ogle: I couldn’t agree more and I can’t believe that billions of dollars are being spent in the electronic health records. It feels like we have – every time I go to a doctor – in every new doctor, I’ve got to fill out forms again with a paper and a pen, in the most advanced industry and understandably so, and need fully so the most advanced industry that exists. These people are doing brain surgery. Yet I got to fill out a form with a paper and pen every single time I go to a new doctor.
Alan Cooper: I can tell you that the quality of the records that you would maintain would be one hell of a lot better than the quality of the records your doctor maintains because you care a lot more about your health than the doctor does.
Jason Ogle: Exactly! In our health is evolves, right. Like they may have records from like 5 years ago and they may still be kind of leaning on those. That’s not accurate. In a lot of people’s case, a lot of people’s health can change in a day, in hours. Right? So, I feel like there’s a lot of room for innovation. Elon Musk, are you listening?
Alan Cooper: You may use submarine, I think right now.
Jason Ogle: Now, there’s rocket to Mars, man. We need somebody. I think we need something like that to happen because money. I think it all boils down to money and it’s the same reason like, and I’m not to get on a soapbox here, but the whole drug industry, they’re in cahoots with doctors because there’s a lot of money to be made, when maybe a home remedy would be a lot more effective and a lot healthier. I just feel like there’s a conspiracy there.
Alan Cooper: Yeah, that’s true. But what you have to do is there’s a whole lot of money to be made anywhere and everywhere. So, you know, Clayton Christianson in the innovator’s dilemma talks about disruptive technology. This has been co-opted and in the popular vernacular disruptive these days just means I’m going to get big, screw you. But he had a pretty specific definition for it. A really good example is bobcat versus caterpillar. Caterpillar made these giant bulldozers and every year they made them bigger and bigger and bigger until you know, your average caterpillar bulldozer weighs like 40 tons and is the size of a house.
And Bobcat came along and they said, we’re going to build a little tiny bulldoze that’s smaller than a compact car, and Caterpillar looked at them and from on high and said, Whoa, Whoa, whoa. We don’t want that stupid little business here. You’re going to sell that thing for $15,000. We sell ours for one and a half a million. Why would we want that? Okay, well, it turns out that a lot of people would just want to dig a ditch. They don’t want to move a mountain. And bobcat had this huge success. Caterpillar, by the way, bought bobcat a few years ago. They created a whole new segment by doing things differently. And the thing about making money is it’s not about making money and it’s not so much about risk because there’s always risk. I mean, who took the bigger risk? Did Caterpillar take the bigger risk by not getting into tiny bulldozers or did bobcat take the risk by getting into the tiny bulldozer marketplace?
You see, it’s about individual managers and individual manager has a choice every single day, a business executive as a choice every single day, which is, they can do what they did yesterday, which is, I mean yesterday, they made a good profit, they had happy clients, happy employees, everything worked fine yesterday. So if they do it again today is a very good likelihood that they’re going to have a similar success. Or they can do something that they’ve never done before? They don’t know if they’ll make money because it’s a new business, it’s very much smaller than their existing business. So they know for a fact that if they do make money, they’re going to make a lot less money, okay. And they’re going to take a risk. They might piss people off, they might upset there’s staff, you know, do they really want to do it?
And good business people are paid to make money. They’re not paid to take risks or to try new things and they don’t get rewarded. If you’re going to take risks, you’re going to have failures. So they don’t get rewarded for having failures. They get rewarded for making more money. And so what good business people do is, they choose – it’s not about making money because Bobcat made a shit ton of money. You see is about do we make money in the predictable, comfortable, conventional way we’ve always made money, which always feels really good.
You know, every morning I get out of bed and I go, I got out of bed. That’s good, and that’s what these business managers are doing. And the thing is a well-trained business managers, one who’s trained to predict the future based on the past and to continue finding the optimum course, okay, well the optimum course does not include innovation because innovation is not optimum, it’s opportunistic, and it’s risky, and it involves stepping into the unknown.
So it’s like innovation in business are mutually exclusive things. But the thing is, as we all know, the innovation makes money, its gives you the dichotomy. This is why when you look at making money as an objective, it’s too coarse of – It’s like when you’re looking for a date, you don’t think human, man or woman or something else, but you don’t think human. It’s two course of a metric. Making money is two of a metric. You have to say, do I want to make money by innovating, which is ugly and messy and means going down market, or do I want to make money by being conventional, which is an orderly and normal and incredibly risky because you’re closed.
Jason Ogle: Yeah! You just triggered a question that I really didn’t plan on asking you. And I’ll be honest, the fenders listening, this is kind of a bit of a selfish question, but I have a feeling it’s going to help you as well. Speaking of the dichotomy between innovation and making money, I am in the midst of trying to get a project greenlit, I thought of this project, believe it or not, I thought of this project merely over 4 years ago and I been trying to get this project greenlit for 4 years. And I’ve got a blessing, I’ve had a blessing 4 years ago, but there’s always been and granted. There have been really good business reasons why we’ve had to kind of postpone building this thing. You know, we rebrand, we made an entire new product that was more important for our business. But I’m at a place right now. We’re, at it again.
We’re trying to get this thing premed. It’s totally, and it’s been validated by the audience that is intended on using it. The management has validated it that we need this. The push back we’re getting right now is from engineering. And it’s from the kind of the analysts, like the business analysts on the engineering side are doing a cost benefit analysis, which is important. I totally get that. But the problem is they’re doing an analysis on a product that does not yet exist. They’re only analysis is based on how long it takes somebody to manually produce this thing now physically rather than using a digital medium which is what I’m trying to do.
So, my biggest challenge right now is; trying to convince the business side and the engineering team that there’s unforeseen, a lot of unforeseen profit in this right now, that you’re only just analyzing this through only what you know now. Everything, every single disruptive quote unquote software product has been released that’s changed people’s lives and really radically innovated and on the business side they didn’t have anything to analyze against. What do you say to me? What do you say to the designers that are in the same situation where they know this product is going to produce a yield, but they just can’t prove it yet.
Alan Cooper: Yeah! It sucks to be you. So, let me just say as a guy who has never actually had a job in his life and has never really worked at a big corporation and even all those years that I worked for myself, I still never once won the employee of the month award.
Jason Ogle: You are in your close parking place
Alan Cooper: You’re just wrong to ask me for a job advice because my advice is a really bad. You know, I would say Molotov cocktail, I would say burn the place down. That would be my advice. Here’s what I would do if I were you and really do not take this advice. This is bad advice because what I would do is I would say I’m doing it and I would go and I would hire a couple of engineers because the engineers are giving you pushback. They don’t want to be on board. They don’t want to play your game. So don’t try to convince them. Because trying to convince people to do things is a losing game. It never worked. So don’t. So, instead go hire a couple of young starry-eyed engineers who don’t know they can’t do it and let them do it instead and start building it.
And one of two things are going to Happen, either the people who think they have decision making capabilities are going to freak out and fire you, which is a fine thing because then you’ll know, or what they’re going to do is they’re going to stand back and say, let’s watch him hang himself with all that rope he’s got. All that rope he’s taken, you know, or actually in the software world is, let’s see if he didn’t shoot himself in the foot with all that rope and just do it. And this is if you’re right, you’re going to have a success and everybody’s going to be happy. And if you’re wrong, status quo ante, okay. And if they fire you, then you know they were never going to say yes.
Do you not take that advice. And if you do take that advice, you fool, do not. Do not tell anybody you heard it from me.
Jason Ogle: This isn’t being recorded. So, it’s all good.
Alan Cooper: It’s like close this book, it’s nothing but a pack of lies.
Jason Ogle: I like how you put the medical disclaimer out there, so that’s fine.
So at Alan, Apple made a mouse that you can’t use while it’s charging. I can’t press one for English if I’m using FaceTime on my Mac book because Apple never provided a UI for that. Spotify UX has historically been one giant disparate fluster cluck. Now let’s not even get into some of the software. Microsoft has pooped out. Sure point, Alan, why are there so many bad products in the world, even NE especially at the enterprise level.
Alan Cooper: Well, because it’s hard. It’s really, really hard to make good products. And the reason why it’s hard is not because it’s hard to make good products, but because people don’t really want to make good products. I mean people want to make good products, I mean there are people out there who want to make good products, but they’re not in a position to make good products. And the people who are in a position to make good product, they don’t want to make good products. What they want is they want to get promoted to VP. And the things you have to do to get promoted to VP do not include making good products.
Jason Ogle: So weird!
Alan Cooper: You know, so, how can I say this? So, you can make a shit ton of money by creating a food like substance that doesn’t taste good, isn’t nourishing, is destructive of the environment, wastes the soil, pollutes terribly and destroys family, farms and entire human ecosystems. It hollows out cities and towns. I mean and you can make a shit ton of money doing.
Jason Ogle: Microwave popcorn.
Alan Cooper: Well, pretty much. I mean you go to Indiana and its mile after mile of a monoculture GMO corn and soybeans, but that’s not the shocking thing is go there and after harvest and you’ll find it stubble. It’s bare plowed dirt left that way for 6 months which is like a lot like an open sore on the earth and it’s usually degrading, but the thing is people make a lot of money at this. Actually people don’t make a lot of money. The poor farmers in Iowa or Indiana, they are suffering, but it’s the agribusiness loans that they make a lot of money. But the point is that, what you’re saying is not why are there so many bad products in the world? Because; the answer to that is obvious is you can make more money with a bad product then you can with good product. Okay, so the answer is – the question is more subtle than that, which is why do we give money to people who mistreat us instead of giving money to people who don’t mistreat us? That’s the question to ask and that’s a harder question. That’s a much harder question because the thing about humans, oh my God, we’re human and we misbehave in the several and we misbehave in the aggregate.
So, other people come along and they have no moral compass and they say, well, let’s exploit that, let exploit that willingness, you know, and so it becomes a kind of a self-supporting duopoly. This is why I say the number one step is never ever apologize for bad products. Always call, you know, fuckery by its real name of fuckery. You know, when the president laws don’t say he’s challenged by the truth, say he lies. The thing is what happens is when you refer to things, frankly, as what they are, other people who weren’t aware of that beginning to see it in that new way. I call it knocking on someone’s frame of reference. You know, as soon as you hear somebody knocking on your frame of reference, you now are aware of your frame of reference and you can step outside of it until you hear a knocking on your new frame of reference, and then you step outside of that, and then its frames of reference all the way out.
And this is not bullshit. I mean, I am not a scientist. Okay, but George Lakoff is a scientist and you can go and you can read his books. I mean he’s a cognitive psychologist and he’s at UC Berkeley and he’s written a bunch of books about how people think [crosstalk]. And we do it by building metaphors. We build primal metaphors from this moment we’re born and we begin to build metaphors on top of metaphors, and so what I talk about frames of reference, really what I’m talking about are metaphors, and this is an actual fact, this is how the human mind actually works. And this is what interaction designers by the way need to think about, not about empathy, but about George Lakoff.
Jason Ogle: This is interesting. I feel like as Users, we vote with our wallets and like you said, we will tend, we were kind of masochistic in a way. We tend to give money and continue to give money to companies that are producing software that’s punishing us because we need the content, right? Like I talk about Spotify a lot and a lot of Defenders know that listening. But I liked the content enough to pay them $30 bucks a month to suffer through the UI, to suffer through the disparate experiences across platform, across device. I’m willing to do that, and so many users are willing to do that. And as of right now, Spotify has $70, million users voting with their wallet that tells them they don’t need to change anything. That tells them they don’t need to make it better. That sucks.
Alan Cooper: Well, there’s the network effect and some guy wrote a book called the “Change Function.” Coburn I think, I read it a few years ago, and he talks about
Jason Ogle: Pip Coburn
Alan Cooper: Yeah! People will change, but they have a natural reluctance to change because change takes mental effort. Okay. And it’s also a commitment for even more mental effort and for unknown things, you know, is the known evil is preferred over the unknown evil, and so he’s says that “the perceived advantage of the new way has to be clearly be better than the advantage of the existing way”. And then people will change, you know, that’s a problem that isn’t tackled because companies like to do incremental change because it’s so much safer than doing big leap.
So, what that means is that; they don’t actually ever come up with anything new, you know, that’s why they moved the hamburger menu from the left side to the right side instead of coming up with a new mental model because they don’t want to take that risk. And so, this is why Autodesk software looks a hell of a lot like it did 30 years ago, you know, even though they should’ve shipped can that mental model about 25 years ago. And the same thing with big products and all the big software is like that. I mean you know, Photoshop is another like a poster child for that kind of thing.
Jason Ogle: Yeah, I guess you know it’s hard. I don’t know.
Alan Cooper: And again you can make a lot of money selling crap to people and everybody is sitting there saying, how hard is it to change, you know do I want to leave my social media platform that is the network effect. Do I want to leave my social media platform where all the people I interact with socially are here to go to this new platform that has nobody on it? Do I want to move? And the answer to that is, of course you don’t. So the new social media platform has to somehow bring your old social media platform along and the only way you can do that is with massive amounts of money and the only people that have massive amounts of money are not those little new companies, but the old companies and if you by any chance do come up with a good idea and do begin to siphon off users from the big guys. The big guys just come in and either clone you, buy you, coopt you, or outright steal your ideas and you know, and just take your place.
Jason Ogle: Yeah, I agree. I think that as users, we’re all pretty fickle right? I mean I was working at Myspace whenever Facebook taking over the world. I was working there and I saw it all shut down. And the sad thing is there were insiders there giving news to TechCrunch. I found out that they were laying off 33% of the staff like 2 weeks before it actually happened on TechCrunch. But we saw it all coming and it was really sad the day that it happened. Every time we were sitting there and anytime somebody got a call because we never get calls that they were designers, we don’t get phone calls. So whenever any designers phone would ring, that would be them getting called into the office and let go that day. It was really, it was sad.
But here’s the thing. Facebook offered a better experience and that’s the truth. And I saw it coming like we’re still had cold fusion on the back end. Like a weird, like conglomeration of ColdFusion and ASP and it was always fighting with each other and you know, and we didn’t move fast enough and we were corporate, where Fox bought us. And so that was another problem. You have a whole new layer. We weren’t as nimble anymore. So, I mean, there’s a whole lot I could probably write a blog about what went wrong there, you know, but basically Facebook came along and they offered something that was more consistent, a better user experience and it just, they were patient. They were patient with, like you said; recruiting the people over and now all of a sudden, just within a year Myspace became an abandoned amusement park. So we’re fickle. [Inaudible 55:10] and I think the reason I haven’t, I’m still paying for spotify is because there’s just nothing better yet.
Alan Cooper: That’s just the point is that the change function was there, is that Facebook offered a demonstrably better experience or value to the users, so they moved across. And so look, Toys “R” Us just went out of business and the proximate cause for them going out of business was their massive debt. Okay. They owed a lot of money. Well, the reason why they owed a lot of money is because the corporate raiders came in and took them over and sold off all their assets and generating and took the money and then generated a huge amount of debt. Okay! And then they kind of walked away from the company, from the shell of the company and the debt crushed them. Okay.
Change the definition of get to technical debt. You see the engineers wanted to keep their protective legal underpinnings because they didn’t want to undergo the pain and dislocation of rebuilding their back end. Okay! And why was that? I mean, engineers, I know engineers and there’s nothing in the world they love more than rebuilding their back ends if you’ll pardon the expression.
But the reason they didn’t is because their comp was tied to not doing stuff like that. I said, so what happened is Myspace was Toys “R” Us with technical debt, but it’s the exact same thing. It’s the people pulling the money out of the company and not reinvesting into it. Because; if you’re not working to put yourself out of business, you can bet that somebody else’s. I mean you constantly be having to reinvent not products on the fringe but your core product.
Jason Ogle: Yeah! And that was another mistake we made, we tried to be all things to all people and so we started offering, you know, we started trying to be yahoo and yahoo wasn’t exactly doing great at the time anyway, and then we started trying to offer whether and horoscopes and you know, in local store, local shopping options. And it’s like we could totally got away from our core product, which was music. It was totally, it was an undiscovered bands that were getting famous on Myspace and we got away from our core as well, and that was a big mistake as well.
Alan Cooper: Well, the old the old saw still holds: if you’re trying to be all things to everybody, you’re not anything to anybody.
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