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053: Be a Good Ancestor with Alan Cooper (Part II)

User Defenders podcast
Product Design
053: Be a Good Ancestor with Alan Cooper (Part II)

Be sure to check out Part I

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.


  • Should designers code? (4:40)
  • Specialization vs. generalization (7:41)
  • How do designers get business on board with building great products? (13:19)
  • How do you be a good ancestor? (25:30)
  • Ancestry Thinking (40:03)
  • What does the future of UX look like to you? (43:00)
  • What advice do you have for aspiring UX designers? (51:48)
  • What do you want your legacy to be? (56:14)

Alan Cooper’s Twitter
Alan Cooper’s Website
The Change Function [BOOK]


Show transcript

Prefer to read on Medium?

Jason Ogle: So, I’m about to open up a can of worms and with you answering this, quite possibly a can of whoop butt…so, ready?

Alan Cooper: Sure! What’s the worst that could happen?

Jason Ogle: Should designers code?

Alan Cooper: I really don’t think that’s a relevant question. I mean, that’s like saying should designers waterski. I don’t know if it makes them a better designer. Yeah, they should all. But should I draw up and say, hey, you designer go waterski, it’s good for you. You know, like what the hell, where does that come from? But in order to be a good designer in the tech field, you have to understand what your boss motivations are. Okay! And you have to understand what your user’s motivations are, and you have to understand the motivations of the people who implement your product. You have to understand what motivates them. So if you get that understanding by coding, go for it. But that’s how I got it, you know, but I don’t think that coding in and of itself is necessarily.

Now everybody then starts throwing in my face this thing about the one man shop and to which I say the one-man shop, I say do you want to go and get your heart replaced in a one-man shop operating theater. I don’t think so. If you’re trying to build some world-class software in a one-man shop, what the hell’s wrong with you? It’s not a matter of Oh, but I have to do this, it’s a matter of who said this is the way to do things. I mean, it’s just stupid, so yeah Okay! So you’re stranded on a desert island and what you have is, you know, as a handful of rubbish and garbage and a volleyball and what you have to do is somehow find your way back to civilization. So, I don’t give a shit if you take your tooth out with an ice skate, you know, it’s just not a big deal. Okay!

But don’t tell me this is how businesses are run, is not. Okay! So, if you get a one-man shop, then I fully expect to see you doing some disruptive stuff. Okay! Because if you’re a one-man shop and you’re talking about whether you’re a hamburger menu should be on the left to the right and then you’d have to code up the PHP or the HTML or the CSS by yourself. Then what you are is you’re a dupe.

Jason Ogle: I don’t want Michael Phelps performing my heart surgery. I’d rather him load me a binker! Just kidding, I don’t do that anymore.

Alan Cooper: Oh right! [Laughter] Anybody that says binker, it doesn’t. I don’t even know what a binker is, but obviously, you do.

Jason Ogle: So, that’s funny. That’s an interesting kind of segue into specializing versus generalizing because that’s another kind of a hot topic in our field. Do you have opinions on that? You kind of alluded to it a little bit I think?

Alan Cooper: Well, I think that you know, I bitch all the time about visual design as a stand in for interaction design, and some people think that because of that I’m down checking visual design. I’m not, I’m a huge advocate of visual design and I’m seeing really good goal directed visual design and it is awesome and it has a huge positive effect on the product, but it’s not interaction design. Visual design is not about reconceptualizing electronic health records out of the possession of the health provider to the possession of the health consumer. Okay! That isn’t visual design. Okay!

And the same thing with user interface design. It’s hugely important, slightly important, but it’s not the same thing. It’s reconceptualizing what the product does, who it does it for and why, which is what interaction design means to me. I mean your verbiage, Mayberry. But at a certain point somebody’s got to ask those questions. So what happens, I think is a lot of designers say, well that’s the job of somebody, a couple of pay grades higher than me and to which I say they’re not thinking about that shit. You know, people in business, they’re not thinking about users, whether they’re thinking about what user interface they like, what visual design they like or what concepts they use. Their thinking about how do they make money, how do they meet payroll? They’re thinking about different problems.

Jason Ogle: It seems like a lot of – in this conversation is kind of organically veered into this about the – There’s kind of – I always thought there was more of a contention between designers and engineers, but I think the real challenge, and I don’t want to necessarily say contention, but the real struggle and tug of wars between designers and business people. Like how do we overcome, like how do we kind of get up “Hamburger Hill” a little more on this one? You know what I mean?

Alan Cooper: Well, it’s not between designers and business people, it’s between, let me first off say yes and thank you for framing it that way and thank you for going there, and now I’m going to refine the details a little bit because I think you’re really onto something and so I know as a designer, I started out by saying no, but really what I meant was yes. Is really it’s between humans and people who want money. Now, don’t get me wrong, I want money, you know, and I don’t disrespect the people who want money, but I believe as Steve Jobs said, “profit is a byproduct of quality”. And what I believe is that my personal goal as a practitioner is always quality. I always opt for quality, Okay! And I have blind faith that if I can achieve quality, I will get profit as Steve jobs did. And you can see that because for many, many years, Apple held a massive 3% market share but relentlessly refused to let go of its insistence on quality.

Okay! And that’s what insistence on quality will get you. It will get you kicked to the curb until you find the right combination is when media went digital, all of a sudden Apple went from a 3% market share to whatever its market share is now. It went to a dynastic victory over multiple product fields. That’s because their vision was about product quality and delivering the right product for the people for the right things.

The problem is in 1995, there wasn’t a lot of digital music. There weren’t a lot of digital photographs. There wasn’t a lot of digital communication, you know. There was no social media to speak of and so and so that relentless attention on people got lost in the Microsoft envision of a computer and every desktop. They didn’t say a computer in every pocket. They didn’t say a computer in every for every person. It was corporate speak. Incorporations ruled the computing landscape. And Microsoft dominated with that. And Apple just barely stayed alive. I mean, Jobs had to go and beg Bill Gates to give them money. I mean to you imagine going to your most despised enemy. Not just not an enemy you respect either.

Jason Ogle: Right? That was war. It was all out war.

Alan Cooper: And asking them for money saying, please Bill, will you invest in my company because I’m about to go bankrupt. And Bill said sure Steve, here, let me reach in my pocket and give you some spare change and give them $100 million, you know chump change for Gates at the time.

Jason Ogle: Absolutely!

Alan Cooper: How did we start down that track here?

Jason Ogle: How can designers, how can we kind of get business people, people that are more concerned with business on board with the vision of creating great products?

Alan Cooper: You can’t. I mean basically, we have to overturn the dominant paradigm. This is a huge task and you can see this in the breakdown of our political structure and the tribalism and the dissension that’s going on across the country, really across the world is if your metrics are money, it’s called Goodhart’s law. Goodhart’s law says that “if a metric becomes a goal, it becomes gamed and it becomes worthless”. Okay? So what you do is if you say the goal is to make money, people will say, well, instead of creating quality to make money, why don’t I just shortcut the whole thing and make money directly?

And the thing is of what you’re doing is you’re looking just at money then that shortcutting works and this is how you get massive crime like the world economic collapse in 2008. That was the response to a criminal act of American bankers, and you see this across the board. So look at it this way. If what you do is you say, how successful is America doing? Let’s look at the GDP. Okay! Well, if you look at the GDP, you know, it was the most wonderful thing that ever happened to the GDP was the Santa Rosa fire here a few months ago, where 7,000 houses burned to the ground. Okay, that’s really good for the GDP. All of a sudden, the construction business as such a boom around here and car dealers, all of a sudden they’re selling because like 10,000 cars burned to the ground, so all of a sudden they’re selling lots and lots of cars and then they had the Malibu fire up a month later, and another 5,000 structures burned in Southern California, or you know, Katrina or you know, any of these giant weather events, the flood in Houston last year. Okay! That was really, really good for GDP.

So, what happens is you have to say, our metrics really getting us where we want to go and in what we do is we let the numbers be proxies for reality and it leads us into trouble. So the map is not the territory. So, the GDP is not the United States of America. You can’t look at unemployment numbers and get a sense for how well we’re doing here in the United States because there’s the unemployment numbers don’t take into the fact that they don’t take into consideration the fact that a lot of people have to work two or even three jobs in order to keep their heads above water, to avoid having delivered a cardboard box down by the river. So, the numbers don’t reflect reality.

So the same thing is all pervasive in the tech world. I mean, when I started in the tech world, the great big stodgy old companies, the IBM’s and the Xeroxes, you know, the Intel even, which was one of the newcomers, they invented the microprocessor and they didn’t think it was a microprocessor. They insisted that it was a device controller and a lot of really smart people said, no, that’s a computer on a chip. That’s a general purpose computer and the Intel said no, no. And what that did was that created a huge entrepreneurial market gap but a bunch of people waited into it and created a whole new industry. Okay! The problem is the World Wide Web did the same thing. You know, it created this huge gap where individuals could walk in and say, but I can create an entirely new business here that the big guys are not seeing at all.

And the problem is that back in the day, in those companies, they didn’t think that the Internet. So, you didn’t have the ability to do, to get hundreds of millions of users within a few years. It took decades and decades to get millions of users is much slower, much more tedious, so they had to build brick by brick, an edifice of actual quality. Okay! And so the landscape is very different today and it’s not conducive to entrepreneurial stuff. I mean, right now there’s intellectual property. Litigation is an enormous industry in Silicon Valley, and what that does, what all that intellectual property stuff does is it gives an enormous amount of money to large companies who cross license their IP and it doesn’t create opportunities for individual creative inventors.

I mean, being able to innovate today is really difficult because; if you do innovate, the big guys will steal it from you and crush you. They will out lawyer you or the trolls will come in and just take your money and leave, you know, wounded in the desert without a horse, you know. And so it’s because; what we do is we don’t look at things that are good. We don’t look at things that are good for us. We don’t look at food that’s good for us. We don’t look at air this good for us. We don’t look at sustainability. We don’t look at what’s good for our children. What we do is we say, how much money is this going to make me today? And that’s what drives everything.

And this is not the tech industry. The tech industry just happens to have, oh by the way, multiplied all that stuff and accelerated all that stuff. I mean, it’s not an accident that you know, it may have been, you know, the Russians who hijack the 2016 presidential election, but they did it with technology products that were built right here in Silicon Valley. I mean we’ve created these incredibly powerful tools and we have this philosophy that because the tools have no inherent morality, they will be good, which is a contradiction on the face of it.

I mean, number one, the tools in fact do have an inherent morality and it happens to reflect the inherent morality of people who are not accountable for their actions. And I believe that people are inherently good when they’re accountable for their actions, but I believe that people are inherently bad when they’re not accountable for their actions. And software is a giant blind. It’s a way to hide and it’s a way to steal without having your identity revealed and so the bad nature of people comes out. And so we have to proactively work to prevent this. So, the larger world is a microcosm of the tech world, and the tech world is a microcosm of the larger world.

Jason Ogle: You know, this is deep stuff Alan.

Alan Cooper: But yeah, it is deep stuff. The thing is so I use this metaphor all the time of Robert Oppenheimer, the guy who invented the atomic bomb in the 1940s. He was the smartest guy in the world and the US government gave him essentially unlimited power and unlimited resources said, invent the bomb to end the war. Okay! And he was on a mission of good and he invented the bomb. And when you saw that bomb go off, he went, oh shit. Because all of a sudden he realized that while arguably he shortened the war, he also unleashed a new world order that was not necessarily a good thing for the human race. And that’s exactly what’s happened here in Silicon Valley in the last 20 years. We thought we were building really cool ways to dis-intermediate retail. And it turns out that we were building the next atomic bomb, which is the. I mean, the thing is that what a lot of people in the United States don’t understand is that the opening battles of World War III have already been fought. They were in your computer, on your social media and the United States lost. So yeah, this is deep, this big shit. And so interaction design is not about whether you get that big promotion. It’s whether you’re going to be in a gulag in 5 years.

Jason Ogle: Yeah! I can’t help but think about, you know King Solomon’s words in Proverbs 30:8. He said, “Give me neither poverty nor riches, give me just the necessities of life”. And I just feel like, you know, there’s a lot there because I feel like when we meet just focus too much on money, we ended up unleashing things that we probably shouldn’t. And it’s just really funny not to get too much of a tangent, but it’s funny to see all these people who invented social media and invented a lot of the addictive tech that we have on an apology tour about it.

It’s funny to me, you know, and it’s like, well yeah, you’re laughing all the way to the bank. you know, well you made this stuff and now you feel bad about it. But I just feel like there’s got to be a balance. I think if, if there’s any takeaway for me, Defenders listening keep fighting for the users, just like Alan has for 40 years nearly. And you know, in this show was inspired by Tron’s word saying “I fight for the users.” And we need champions. We need champions for the users now more than ever. And like Alan said earlier, you know, stand up and let your voice be heard and if you don’t get the empowerment, you know, at least you can wash your hands of it, because you did do something, you at least you brought up the issue and maybe if it’s that big of a deal, especially if it’s an ethical issue, get the Haiti’s out of there and go and do something, build something yourself. Make a difference!

Alan Cooper: Well, thank you. I agree. I appreciate your passion. This is why I have arrived at ancestry thinking. It how do you be a good ancestor? You want to be a good answer, you know you said there’s an old joke, you know, “the way to be more successful in life is to choose better parents” and you know, it’s a joke because it’s true because it’s impossible, but it actually works the other way around, which is you can make your descendants more successful by being a better ancestor and that is a choice that we have. So instead of making more money, or being on the winning team, what we can do is we can be better ancestors.

And people think that what they have to do is, you know, they have a job working for Facebook and what they need to do is somehow changed the organization. Or you know, they’re coming to work, you know, and their boss tells them to do something and they look at it and it’s questionable and they think gee does that mean that I have to make a stand here and quit and throw a tantrum and say, I’m not going to do that. And to which I say, no, you don’t have to do that because you hurling yourself into the machinery isn’t going to accomplish anything. You know, they’ll just lubricate the machinery with your guts. But what you can do is you can have an effect on the next generation of products that are coming down the pike.

So, the thing is that you can’t divert the course of the Mississippi River, you know, where it’s a mile wide, but you can go up to where it’s a tiny little rivulet where it starts up in the Rocky Mountains and you can divert the Mississippi with a shovel. That’s the kind of awareness that we need to bring to this. The idea that when somebody says, I’ve got an idea for something new we can do, what you can do is you can say, now let’s extrapolate, let’s say this is a success. What kind of toxic behavior are we putting into the embryonic product now that’s going to manifest itself later? You see, and this is what I mean by ancestors thinking, these are practical methods for understanding how bad behavior creeps into products when they’re tiny little babies and you as an individual practitioner can detect these things and bring attention to them.

And again, I don’t expect you to make dramatic life or death stands and say, you know, this feature goes out of the product or I’m quitting, but I do expect you to bring to people’s attention the fact that this feature and other just mental model is in fact going to be a problem later. It’s so bad ancestry creeps into products when we build them with assumptions, and everything gets built with assumptions. Okay! That’s like normal and Okay! But the problem is that you make an assumption, what you have to do is you have to circle back and you have to assess that assumption. You say, did that assumption to work? And if it didn’t, you have to root it out. You can’t let the assumptions float.

The example that I like to use is it’s a meme that’s been going around the Internet of a guy’s sticking his hand in a men’s bathroom under an electric soap dispenser, and when he puts his hand under it, it detects his hand and it scored soap in it and then his body who’s black sticks his hand underneath it and the machine just doesn’t recognize the black skin. The assumption that the soap dispenser company made was that their staff was representative that they were adequately their user community, and that was a bad assumption. Okay! It’s not unreasonable to say, okay, we’re going to build our prototype based on testing with our staff. I’ve done it a million times, so you know it’s okay, but you have to then recognize that is an assumption you are making and you can’t let the product or the company continue with that assumption without questioning it.

So, questioning assumptions is an ongoing process. It’s not something you do once and then move on. Okay! And this is something that we need to build in. It’s like when I was a kid when I was 10, 12 years old, when you ate a candy bar, drank a can of soda pop, you just rolled down the window your car and tossed it out. Literally, that’s how… Have you watched Mad Men, famous episode where they do that? And kids today, they just grow up trained to understand that they have to be conservative and they have to recycle, and sustainability is drummed into them. Well, we can do that same thing with assumptions is we can drum into people’s heads that assumptions are not things that get left behind. There are things that get constantly reexamined. As situations change, even settlements need to be reexamined. So, there’s another avenue for bat ancestry and that’s externalities.

And again, externalities are normal and good. It’s what you do is you say, I’m not going to worry about that. That’s not my problem, it’s somebody else’s problem. And it’s a completely reasonable thing to do. So if you’re building a new office building downtown, the first thing they do is they put up those plywood barricades and they say, you know, civilian stay out. This is a hard hat area. That’s an externality. What they’re doing is they’re saying it’s dangerous in here, only trained in protected people can come in, we’re keeping the public out. Okay!

What a certain point, what they do is they say, okay, just the externality has now served his purpose and we’re going to let the civilians in, but at that point they have to know that it’s no longer a dangerous place to walk. It’s the same thing with building products. When you create a product with externalities, what you’re doing is you’re saying I don’t have to worry about, you know, it’s like Uber says, well, it’s really easy just you register your credit card with us and you can get in and out of a taxi cab or an Uber car. What they’re doing is they’re creating an externality, and the externality is that people who don’t have credit cards are out of the system and can’t benefit from it.
Jason Ogle: Okay? Right! True!

Alan Cooper: And the thing is that in fact, it might be a reasonable externality to make during launch time. Okay! But it’s not. What it does is it is a discriminatory and destructive of the fabric of society over the long-term if that externality is allowed to remain external, you can’t do that.

Jason Ogle: And we can’t read a Redbox either without a credit card.

Alan Cooper: Yeah! There’s are tons of other hub services that work that way, companies that don’t take cash. And then the third thing is timescale. Timescale is what people do is they tend to look at things the way they are now instead of looking at things the way they’re going to be in the future, and this is another vector for bad ancestry and how it creeps into products and you constantly have to be saying to yourself, is this representative of the way things are going to be in the future?

You know, Mark Zuckerberg, just a month or two ago was testifying in front of Congress and he goes, “we were blindsided by the power of Facebook”. Okay, well, there’s a word to describe that, that’s called a lie because the thing is when you take venture money, you don’t take venture money because you want to deliver a better product or a better experience, you take venture money because you want to grow, that’s what you do, Okay! And when you take venture money, the VCs are on your board and what they will do is they will force you to grow, you will get big. They love platform scale stuff, and that’s one of the reasons why Facebook was such a VC darling. Okay!

So the thing is; if you get venture investment, which Zuckerberg did years ago, you are making a commitment, I mean a serious till death do us part kind of commitment that you’re going to grow. You’re going to get as big as you possibly can, as fast as you possibly can. So when the CEO of the company says we were surprised by getting big, that’s a lie, Okay! And what he did was he created an externality and he did it by refusing to think about the time, okay, and by refusing to…

All the social media guys are the same. They all do the same thing. They go, social media is impartial and amoral and will police itself, which, but it’s 5,000 of your best friends and an early adopters and people who think like you in Silicon Valley, that’s probably true. And when it’s 500 million people in the vast world, it isn’t true. It’s just patently not true. And for anybody who stand there and say, will police itself, well we’ve got 10 people to police, $500 million. That’s a lie and its bullshit.

So the thing is what you have to do because; you can’t. I mean there are lots of people right now screaming at Jack Dorsey to throw Nazis software, and Jack Dorsey doesn’t know what to do. He’s at a terrible dilemma, the poor guys, you know, because if he throws him off, he gets flack and if he doesn’t throw them off, he gets flack, so he doesn’t do anything and he gets flack. Okay! But the time to say something is when it’s a tiny little embryonic product. When at a certain point Jack Dorsey said, I, you don’t have to create an infrastructure to keep Nazis off of Twitter because all the other Twitter’s we’ll do it. Okay! At that point, somebody needed to have said, you know, maybe you shouldn’t throw that cocaine out the window the moving car. Maybe someday there will be lots of cocaine out the windows of lots of cars and it will be accumulating and it will be really bad for our quality of life.

Okay, so is that easy? No. Okay! Does that mean that you’re going to be telling truth to power and risking your job and your life? Yes. You know, so what else you doing? I mean, this is hard. It’s really hard stuff. But all the time I hear people apologizing and saying, well, it’s really hard for the business has to do this, but this doesn’t have to do that. The business could be good. It could be really good. The thing is that there are some billionaires who are going to be making a few billion less. Okay, but all the people who are actually working for a living there and I’m going to be making any more or any less.

Jason Ogle: I mean, you know, you’re right. It’s the guy can’t win. It seems like at this point. I mean he just released some emails that he wrote internally and he released those to public about how he just wants to step away from the whole management thing and empower, which I think is a great call. He wants to empower individuals to run a every department of Twitter and kind of step away. And he released that. He’s trying to be transparent. He’s trying to do the right things. And then you hear people complaining, well there’s not enough women on the thing or like there’s always, you’re always going to find something to complain about, you know? And he did have, there are some women on the panel, but maybe more men. I mean that’s going to happen. I don’t think he intentionally set out to do that, but it just, I don’t know. It’s hard to win.

Alan Cooper: Yeah! But what he’s doing is he’s saying, you know, gee, I’m really sorry that – what’s a good metaphor? It’s like integrating a giant university and saying you’ll just have to deal with the discomfort of the formerly comfortable. It’s not Okay! I mean, you have to come in and proactively defend the motion. I mean, this is why companies… Look at a company like GE, huge company. They had a giant commitment from the top down to have a design effort. Okay! And what happened was the people that brought in to as practitioners were the top of the top, they were the best of the best, but the people they brought in the executive level to give them air cover, didn’t really give him a lot of air cover. They didn’t treat it as a tender little shoot in a garden of robust weeds, you know, instead they said, just fight like all the rest of the guys and GE’s great effort has been severely beaten up and broken by that. And you see this is a lot of times in an organization, you certainly see that in Apple, you see the results of that.

Jason Ogle: Yeah! I want to shift gears, Alan. I will because I’m so glad you talked about ancestry thinking and the entire sentiment is just absolutely spot on and it’s inspiring and I love the analogy too of how do you divert a large river where you start at the source, you started at the beginning and I love that. So, I think that our Defenders listening and myself included, are really inspired by that. We can like we may be think we’re a little people or were, you know, we don’t have a big title and or company or whatever, but we can be at the source of the river, we can divert as long as we are keeping that ancestry thinking in mind, I dig that a lot.

Alan Cooper: Thank you.

Jason Ogle: So, I appreciate you. I absolutely appreciate that initiative and Defenders check it out. I know right now their website, it’s kind of a landing page right now, but you’re probably working on something.

Alan Cooper: It is a landing page. So what we did as a kind of a way to… I’ve been working with a young man named Renato Verdugo who lives in New York City and we have been trying to refine our thinking on this and we’re very pleased with what we’re coming up with, but in order to kind of prove to ourselves that it was real, we have begun teaching this as a class at the University of California at Berkeley in the Jacobs Center for design innovation as under the wing of the engineering school. And we taught it last year as a fall semester class and we’re teaching it again this year, this fall also. And it’s been really good discipline, you know, what they say to learn something, you teach it. And so it’s been great discipline for us and we don’t know where it’s going to go. I mean, as I said at the beginning, you know, the design, the ancestors thinking lab is aspirational. What we’re hoping is that some organization is going to say this is a reasonable investment that would be good for the industry and for the company, and hopefully, will subsidize us and keep us going, because right now it’s just mostly me speaking and you know, trying to being lonely voice in the wilderness.

Jason Ogle: Well, Defenders keep tabs on it, Yes. Is that correct, Alan?

Alan Cooper: Thank you!

Jason Ogle: Yes! Keep tabs on that, that’s awesome! As we kind of start wrapping up here, Alan, I have just a few more questions if you have time. I appreciate how generous you’ve been so far in your time. So, I guess this is one that I feel is interesting, as we all know this field is complex and ever evolving, and I know you’ve seen it. I feel like I’ve seen a lot in 20 years since the web. I know you’ve seen a lot in 40 years since the invention of computers and software for which you were a big part of frankly. So I want to ask you, you know, as we kind of get in, start diving even more headlong into artificial intelligence for better or worse, you know, it’s obvious that a lot of inevitable disruption as Kevin Kelly would put it and change or in all of our futures, you know, what does the future of UX look like to you? I mean, should we be concerned about the robots we’re inventing to destroy us one day? And what is design even the field of design look like to you, even in the immediate, if not distant future?

Alan Cooper: Well, I think that’s a good question. I don’t lay claim to be much of a prognosticator. I think that there’s going to be a continuing battle in the UX field between those who think that their job is to be creative and put a pretty face on things and those who think that job is to rethink the compact between users and technology. And I’m always fighting for the latter because I think that we have to do that. I mean the worst products in the world can look beautiful. We can be really easy to click on the hurt myself button, and so I think you really have to have to look at the bigger picture of what are we actually doing here and I see this battle going on in the UX world and that’s the only battle of significance. I know that there’s battle for terminology and there’s battles for tools and I don’t think any of those are significant, you know, I mean…

Jason Ogle: Titles

Alan Cooper: I don’t think it’s significant. I don’t know. I think what’s significant is executive compensation.

Jason Ogle: Okay! Do explain?

Alan Cooper: Well, do executives get more money by making their users more successful or do they get more money by making more money for the company? You know, it’s really interesting. One of the discussions I have on Twitter all the time is between his designers who say, my job as a designer is to reconcile the goals of the company with the goals of the user. That just sounds so mom and apple pie.

Jason Ogle: It sounds like the “Fuller Brush Man.”

Alan Cooper: It’s wrong. It’s not deeply and profoundly wrong. If the goals of the business are not completely coincident with the goals of the user, then there’s something fundamentally wrong at the business side. And there always is and it’s always the same thing. It’s the personal ambition of business executives. Okay! Because business executives do not get compensated for achieving the user’s goals, they get compensated for. Sorry, a big truck going by.

Jason Ogle: They get worse.

Alan Cooper: They get compensated for making money. Okay! And you know, as I said before, you could, you could make money by burning the place to the ground. Okay! And in many cases they do. So what we need to do is – look user experience professionals, interaction designers, what we do at the bottom is we understand who our users are, we understand what they want, what will make them happy, and then we figured out ways to deliver that to them. We do find ways to make them happy. Okay! That’s what your business should be doing. And if your business isn’t doing that it’s because there are conflicting reward systems elsewhere in the organization. So this is why executive compensation is a user experience issue. This is why I say that creating a good user experience is not as much a design problem as it is a power struggle.

You see? So again, you can’t walk into, you know, Facebook or Apple or Amazon or Google and say we need to change the executive comp structure around here. Okay! But your tiny little startup but you can do is you can say, are we going to set up our comp structure around here so that people get a lot of money if they make a lot of money or do they get a lot of money? Is it make users happy?

Jason Ogle: Well, said. And sadly there’s always going to be that and I think we’ve seen even just in the past 20 years, the corporate greed, the corporate scandal, I immediately thought of Enron, you know, and a lot of the stuff that even happened during the dot bomb there was that greed.

Alan Cooper: Don’t please, do not say, there always will be because that isn’t true. Okay! When you say that, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Do not tell the young Defenders that it would be good if we could all be altruistic, but it’s never going to happen, so fuck it go. You know, get your pound of flesh while you can. Don’t do that. Okay, so fight this fight. Understand that there are a lot of battles that are you get lost between here and there because there are, you know, I’m not a fool and I’m not living in cloud cuckoo land and I understand that I’m going to lose a lot of battles, but the fact is you know, I came from the early days of the technology when people really did set out to make great products and then they were kind of astonished by how much money they made, and the problem is that amount of money that they were astonished by attracted a lot of people who were too astonished by but expected it.

And so what I see in the mid-70s in Silicon Valley, our driving force went like this. I’m going to create some really cool technology and if I make a lot of money while I’m doing it, that’s going to be cool and what I see today is people coming into the technology saying, I’m going to make a lot of money and if I can make some cool technology while I’m doing it, that will be cool and that’s ass backwards. And the thing is the first way gets you good technology and money. The second way gives you money. But the thing is that that earlier version of Silicon Valley is proof that we can do it again. So you can say, that’s a hard battle to fight Alan, but don’t say there will always be, because we can change this. You know, we can create the kind of society, where what we do is we have metrics for looking at the quality of life, instead of having metrics for looking at how many houses we burned down. We can do that, we can make that change.

Jason Ogle: I love that. I appreciate you correcting my framing on that. I love the passion man. Defenders: absorb that and let’s all do this together, let’s figure that out together, for sure. A couple more Alan, speaking of the Defenders, which I love, I do this for them. A lot of them are younger, newer designers that are trying to navigate this field trying to figure out the right path to go down, and I really especially like questions like this because I think this question is like this really especially a benefit to their journey and I call it a journey, I’m not afraid to call it a journey because it really is. What do you want every aspiring UX superhero to know about this field that will help them succeed on their important design journey?

Alan Cooper: Thank you. That’s a good question. Nobody’s going to give you permission and that you are as powerful as you care to be. So if what you do is you say, can I do this, the answer is always going to be whatever you think. I mean they’re not going to say, sure, go try it. What they’re going to do is they’re going to say, no, you can’t do that, and you’re going to have to fight. Okay!

Jason Ogle: But what Henry Ford said, “whether you can or you can’t”. You’re right. So, you said, you can or can’t.

Alan Cooper: Exactly! And the thing is you have to understand that it may not be a zero sum world, but pretty much all of the business people I’ve ever met act like it is. Okay! So, the thing is that for you to get resources, permission as a resource. Okay! You’re going to have to essentially take a resource away from somebody else or at least the perception of that. Okay! And what matters in this world is what you do, not what it says on your resume. What matters is not your portfolio. What matters is what you do. And there are a lot of organizations out there that are – what they’re going to do is they’re going to ask you to be something you’re not and say things that you don’t believe in. Don’t work for them. Make the right choice.

If you’re an interaction designer and you’re skilled, then you’re valuable and there are more open wrecks for a person like you than there are people like you. You know, if you’re , I want to be, you know, used to be a yoga instructor and now you want to get into the high paid field of tech, and so you discovered that empathy will get you a job as a user experience professional, and so what you do is you know, only teach yoga and the week. And I’m not slamming yoga instructors. I have high regard for Yogis. But empathy don’t make you a UX designer. Okay! It’s actually hard work and it’s a specialized skill that demands training and experience. Okay! But if you’ve got that skill, if you’ve got that training and experience than you are very valuable, and when people say to you, well you’re going to be, you know, a team of one working on designing our new hamburger menus say, no, I’d rather go rearrange my sock drawer. You got it. Just because somebody tells you you’re a small person doesn’t mean you have to believe that an act out being a small person.

Jason Ogle: I love that. Oh, that’s so good, such great advice Defenders, from Alan. I’m going to sit in this moment for a second. So as this is my last question now, and this may be out of all the value that you’ve just added and you’ve dropped some nuclear proportion value bombs on us today, this might be the most valuable. What do you want your legacy to be? And you’ve obviously you’ve been at this for probably longer than any of us can say. I mean, any of us can say that we have been at it and you certainly have already, you already have a lot of legacy. And again, your bio, reading your bio, that’s just a fraction of that. And I don’t want to ask you, you know, from the bottom of your heart, what do you want your legacy to be when you’re no longer here and people think of you? What do you want them to remember most?
Alan Cooper: Well, I tried to be a good ancestor, you know. I mean, I spent so many years, you know, chasing after money and business and an approval and recognition and you know, and personal pleasure, and self-indulgence. I mean, I did it all, but you get to the point where you realized that the things that you do that are significant are not really the things that you do today, but they are the things that you leave behind for other people, and having kids has a lot to do with that.

You begin to think, you know, what is the world they’re going to live in, you know, and I look at my son just bought a condo in LA, and its 115 degree there this week and I’m going, you know, that’s my problem. I can do something about that. And I have another son who lives in Denmark, and Denmark is one of the low countries, and I look at sea level rise and I go, boy, you know, I hope Scott’s house is still there in a decade, you know, not underwater. I know that the world wide web and social media are tools that have a direct effect on the climate. This is our game to lose. So being an ancestor is not a nice to have. This is a life or death struggle, it’s of greater importance than anything else you’re doing.

And again, I don’t expect everybody to be Joan of Arc. I don’t expect you to be out on the barricades sacrificing your life. But I do expect you to not say that’s not my problem. Is that’s creating an externality, and when you create an extra reality, you create a place where evil leaks into your life and into the things you make and do. So you constantly have to be saying, am I being a good ancestor? You know, I’m sitting here drinking water out of a plastic bottle, you know one used plastic bottle, I’m going, oh my God, that’s like a no, no, I’m being really evil. But all I have to do is I have to say, this month I’m going to drink one fewer plastic disposable bottle of water than I did last month, and I’m working on being a better ancestor every day, and everybody can do that. You this is what my wife taught me is “you set achievable goals and then celebrate reaching them and you will be a happy person, you’ll be motivated to do it again tomorrow”.

Jason Ogle: I liked that a lot, Alan. Thank you.

Alan Cooper: Well, you’re welcome.

Jason Ogle: Thank you so much for doing this. I feel like, I’ve been transported. I feel like I’ve been transported in my world view, my perspective, and my perception has really been altered in a good way.

Alan Cooper: You thought we were going to talk about personas, right??


Jason Ogle: So, that’s the one question I didn’t ask you today! Isn’t that interesting?

Alan Cooper: This is probably a good thing.

Jason Ogle: I was like, we just need to keep going down this road. This has been so rich, so incredible. I’d say by far really one of my deepest dives that I’ve ever had on the show. I thank you. Thank you. From the bottom of my heart, Alan, thank you for being the original User Defender and keep doing what you’re doing. And last but not least, I just want to say fight on my friend.

Alan Cooper: Thank you! I spend most of my time on Twitter. I’m Mr. Alan Cooper and I’d love to talk to more Defenders.

Jason Ogle: Awesome! I’m so glad you mentioned that. Thank you. Cool. We’ll talk to you soon.

Alan Cooper: Thanks Jason Ogle. Bye-bye!

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