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InfoQ Homepage News Alan Cooper Talks About Face 4 and Issues in UX Design

Alan Cooper Talks About Face 4 and Issues in UX Design

The fourth edition of About Face, Alan Cooper's classic and influential book on interaction design has come out seven years after the previous edition. InfoQ interviewed Alan about what is new in this edition and his views on Goal-Directed Design, personas, and other UX topics including flat design and design challenges of wearable devices.

InfoQ: How would you summarize the past seven years in the design industry? What has impressed you most?

Alan: Shortly after the third edition of About Face was published, Apple released the iPhone, the first true smartphone. The touch screen instantly became a consumer input device. After 20 years as the primary input device, the mouse and keyboard were pushed to second place. A whole new language of touch and gesture needed to be created to allow consumers to use smartphones while they held them in their hands.

The smartphone - and the pad computers that followed shortly - created the phenomenon of mobile computing. In the 1990s, everybody had a computer on their desk. Now, in the oughts, everybody had a computer in their pocket. It was very clear that About Face needed to be updated to address these significant changes in the computing landscape.

InfoQ: What’s new in the fourth edition of About Face? Is Goal-Directed Design methodology also updated?

Alan: The power of the Goal-Directed approach is that it works on any platform, in any subject area, and with any users. That is because it is based on understanding who the user is and what their desired end-state is, rather than on any particular technology. While many of the details of pointing and clicking have changed to tapping and swiping, the things that please humans haven’t changed one bit.

The newest edition of About Face describes in detail effective methods for learning about what users want and how to make sure the systems we create get them where they want to go.

InfoQ: It is acknowledged by many practitioners that persona is a useful tool in UX design. However, there are still others who have reported uselessness of personas in their projects. As the first person to use personas in the interactive system design, what is your view on it? When shall we use personas and when not? Is there any established best practice for it?

Alan: Shortly after The Inmates Are Running the Asylum was published, personas exploded in popularity. One of the companies showing interest in personas was Microsoft. However, at Microsoft, they misunderstood how personas worked, how they were created, and how they must be used. Much was written about personas by the practitioners there, including an influential paper and at least one authoritative book. However, what they had written was not correct.

The Microsoft persona didn’t help the designer to create solutions for end users. The Microsoft persona was only good for impressing people with the cleverness of the designer. Unfortunately, Microsoft is a large and powerful company, and the writings of their people have influenced many in the industry. If you create personas their way, you will fail. If you create and use them in the correct Goal-Directed way, you will find them extremely helpful and powerful. Creating and using personas is covered in detail in the new fourth edition of About Face.

InfoQ: More and more customer products today are designed based on emotional design. What do you think about emotional design? And should it be integrated with personas and Goal-Directed Design?

Alan: This is not a new thing. Humans have always been emotional and have always reacted to the artifacts in their world emotionally. Typically, most technologists only think about functionality. The Goal-Directed process has always addressed the important issue of how people feel when they use technology.

InfoQ: Goal-Directed Design uses scenarios and Scenario-Based Design includes analysis of goals. There seems to be some overlap between the two methodologies. What is the difference between them?

Alan: It is very easy to forget about the human user when you are involved in the complex task of creating digital systems. At some point, you must reduce your vision down to a single action, but you must never forget that it is a human being, with feelings and emotions, who is performing that action. The Goal-Directed method helps to keep you focused on that human, even when you are deep in the complexities of digital design.

InfoQ: Do you have any advice on writing scenarios or user stories? For example, should it be structured or unstructured, in first-person voice or in third-person voice?

Alan: I think these things are personal choices and whatever works best for the particular practitioner is fine. The nuance of technique isn’t something that can be dictated by any individual. It’s something that each designer must work out for themselves. The tools should not coerce the practitioner. Instead, the practitioner is the one who wields the tool. The important thing to keep in mind is that our job is to serve the end user, and to always remember that our own preferences and idiosyncrasies are irrelevant. We are experts in the creation of experiences for others.

InfoQ: It has been debated whether flat design is good for users or not. What is your opinion about it?

Alan: This is a debate of no importance. It is style, and means nothing. The skilled designer does not ask, “How does it look?” The skilled designer asks only, “How well does it empower the user to reach their desired end-state?”

InfoQ: Wearable computing devices are gaining traction nowadays. It is a new area of design without much established expertise. According to your experience, what are the challenges for UX design in this area? And what if a wearable device comes without a “face”?

Alan: The challenges of wearable devices are identical to the challenges of desktop and mobile: It is very easy for a digital device to deliver functionality, but it is very difficult for that device to communicate with its human user. It is difficult for the device to indicate what it is doing and why, and it is difficult for the human to tell the device what it should be doing. That is now, and has always been, the essence of interaction design.

However, wearable systems have extremely small screens, if any, and they have extremely limited control panels, if any. The designer Golden Krishna advocates for “No UI” and while this is often an unachievable goal, it is a very worthwhile target.

InfoQ: What drives the phenomenon of the gap between academic research and industrial practice in the realm of interaction design?

Alan: Yes. Academia is based on specialization knowledge. Interaction design is a craft which means that it is based on breadth of cross-disciplinary understanding and practical skill. During the industrial age, universities have come to regard craft as somehow less prestigious than intellectual study. While there is value in the latter, there is more value in the former.

InfoQ: In your own company, how do you integrate the UX design process with software engineering process? How can UX designers enforce their design ideas in a project team with strong programmer culture?

Alan: This is not so much a technical problem as it is a management problem. Conventional management, with its emphasis on cost-reduction through predictability and planning, tends to drive a wedge between developers and designers as they fight for scarce resources. Any good programmer will recognize that designers are a necessary and integral part of creating a good user experience.

InfoQ: Do you have any reference website or app with perfect UX design in your eyes?

Alan: I’m very impressed with SketchUp, the drawing program from Google. It is a very large, complex program that performs very difficult things. The entire approach to visual feedback and user controls is better than anything I’ve ever seen.

I really like the alarm clock on the iPhone. This simple app has made most timepieces obsolete.

My favorite retail website is McMaster-Carr. They sell literally thousands of different industrial parts, yet their website is a model of clarity and ease of use. No other ecommerce site I’ve seen approaches the UX quality they have.

InfoQ: Finally I am just curious about the design of the front cover of the new edition. What does it mean?

Alan: We were very pleased when one of Cooper’s star visual designers, Jason Csizmadi, came up with the bold grid of characters spelling out “A B O U T F A C E” for the cover design. I am very proud of this new edition of the book.

About the Interviewee

Alan Cooper is a pioneering software inventor, programmer, designer, and theorist. He is credited with having produced “probably the first serious business software for microcomputers” and is well known as the father of Visual Basic, inventor of Goal-Directed Design and leading pioneer in applying personas in the interactive system design. Alan is the author of two best-selling books, About Face: The Essentials of User Interface Design and The Inmates Are Running the Asylum. Since 1992, he has been the founder and president of Cooper, a design and strategy company based in San Francisco.



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