Futuristic Design, Inc.
StraightFace column archive
September 15, 2000
He told Corporate America that programmers were really running their businesses. So, why did he expose our little secret?
OK, I confess.
I used to be a programmer. Not a web hack, an app programmer
(you remember C code, right?). So, after reading Alan
Cooper’s latest book, “The
Inmates Are Running the Asylum”, about a year ago, my
immediate comment to a friend was, “great book, but he sold us
(programmers) out”. He told them (management) what was really
happening. Oh man, this is bad.
Then I began to
picture what the fallout from this book would be if it became a
pop-business bestseller. An image of nervous-looking Suits poking
their heads into thousands of programmer’s cubicles all over the
country and asking that irritating question, “So, how’s it
going?” filled my head.
Alan, you used to be a programmer, too. What were you thinking?
You can't handle
The most frightening
revelation in the book was that no one in management could really
control what a programmer ultimately typed in – so regardless of
any decisions, e-mails or product specs, the keyboard cowboys did as
they pleased beneath the thin veil of end user interface code, and no
one would ever really know (except the poor soul that had to maintain
the code after the original coder left). This was surely heresy.
And from a career
perspective, I thought it was a very daring thing for Alan to do for
two reasons – (1) executives might bristle at the notion that a
bunch of smelly Birkenstock-wearing passive-aggressives had any
power whatsoever, and summarily dismiss his ideas, and (2) Alan’s
tireless crusade to make “design” a partner of equal stature to
engineering and marketing in any size company is extremely
controversial to managers, to say the least.
But, I knew that Alan was one of the most business-savvy people in all of HCI-dom (take a glance at Jakob Nielsen’s consulting rates to see another one), so I figured there must have been a master plan in there somewhere. And in a recent interview, he finally talked about what it was, and how it’s worked out great for all of us.
Man with a Plan
Among other things,
Alan set out to raise the awareness of both managers and
programmers for doing interaction design as early in the process as
possible. It serves everyone’s needs, especially the
customer. “Design” can’t continue to be an afterthought or a
one-day task on the master schedule. Designers (of all types) must be
valued team members, not the bane of a programmer’s existence or
merely a pawn of Marketing.
If you go back and read Inmates carefully, you learn that it’s not really about what I said before. Programmers aren’t really doing anything bad on purpose (they just can’t help it). Alan correctly pointed out that no one else in the company understands programmers enough to construct good arguments and provide the right type of input to satisfy their stringent requirements for specificity, thoroughness and edge-case handling. In other words, they’re not really egomaniacal monsters, it’s just that no one knew how to communicate with them properly. But, thanks to Inmates, now we now know how to make those arguments and supply the right information to get what we all want in the end – software that anyone can use.
Of course I knew
So, it’s all very
clear now – Alan didn’t sell us out. He merely told the
story that had to be told in order to get the industry turned around
and going in the right direction. Take a look around. What you’ll
see is that “design” is at the center of everything being done for
the Web and even software in general (can’t say all of it is good or
even decent, but hey, it’s a start). And even “user
experience” is being recognized by management as a truly
important part of the puzzle to be dealt with up front, not as an
Alan Cooper didn’t cause this sudden awareness in the importance of interaction design and interdisciplinary cooperation all by himself, but there’s no question he had a huge part in it (starting as far back as the publishing of his previous book “About Face” in 1995).
I love it when a plan
[ Writer's note: For those of you who don’t know, Alan Cooper is not only a best-selling author, but founded and runs a very successful design firm called Cooper Interaction Design in Palo Alto, California. Their trademark is that they constantly strive to deliver the best “goal-oriented interaction design®” imaginable for their top shelf clients. That means taking a really fresh look at whatever they’ve been hired to do. No new coats of paint applied to ugly websites and dialog boxes for them. My kind of company. -- M. Pell ]
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