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Alan Cooper on Working Backwards for Better Product Design

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At the Agile India conference, design expert Alan Cooper gave a keynote talk on Working Backwards in which he described the approach to design and innovation which has been the basis of his process and practice over the last 26+ years.  The approach has three key elements which he explained:

  • Know your user and their goals
  • See possible solutions
  • See the Big Picture

He explored each of these themes and looked at the implications of the way we currently build and release products, often without regard to the broader impact they have on society as a whole.  

He stated that it takes as much work to make a failing product as it does to create a successful one, and the difference is not what work is done but where that work starts from.  Working backwards starts with the goals and outcomes rather than requirements and constraints.  It identifies the compelling vision which aligns with customer outcomes and results in a successful product. 

The key elements of working backwards are to:

  • Question every assumption – challenge the accepted wisdom, "the way we’ve always done things" and "everybody knows..."
  • Step backwards with genuine enquiry and open mind
  • Then proceed forwards with knowledge and confidence

The conundrum of innovation is that the more innovative an idea is, the less we know how to implement it – which means we automatically don’t know how to achieve the desired result and therefore have to figure it out as we go along.

He discussed some of the design/innovation tools Cooper has identified and used over the years, such as:

  • Magical thinking – what would you do if anything were possible, if there were no constraints, if you had all the money and resources you could possibly hope for
  • Personas – conduct research to deeply understand the goals, motivations, needs and desires of the people who will use the product

He characterised the approaches and fundamental questions of Working Forwards vs Working Backwards as follows:

Working Backwards vs Working Forwards
Working Forwards Working Backwards
Confirmation of what we already think we know Discovery of what we don't know we don't know
Optimization of what we already have/do Opportunity of doing new things in new ways
Brittle Adaptable
Constraints & requirements  Possibilities
Where are we right?  Where are we wrong?

He explained the goal-directed method of identifying needs which involves finding the answer to three important questions:

  • Who is your user?
  • What is their desired end-state
  • What motivates them to get there?

If you don’t start from this understanding, it doesn’t matter how cool your products are – no one will want them.

He emphasised that design is not a separate activity or phase in product development – quoting Molly Nix (senior product designer at UBER), he said "design is the process used to build products". He went on to tell the story of how Cooper engaged with United Airlines and came up with the MillagePlus X App which resulted in over $100M additional sales over three years.  

He made a strong point that innovation needs both inspiration and perspiration, that it’s not enough just to have the idea, it also needs to be followed by a relentless drive to make it real.  He coined an axiom:

Your ego gets it built, your humility gets it loved. To succeed in a world of innovation you need both.

He explained that the approach of working backwards is counter-intuitive for most people.  Our common sense and logic tends to start from the point of view that we know what is needed and to then solve the problem in front of us.  He referenced the codex of cognitive biases and how they push us towards thinking forward.  He said that:

Common sense is just our cognitive biases speaking

He also referenced Daniel Kahneman’s work on "Thinking. Fast and Slow", and said that we need to engage the slow thinking System 2 aspect of our minds when working backwards. 

He then explored the complex systems that make up our societies today and encouraged the audience to look beyond simple first-order effects of actions, and to explore the unintended consequences of the actions we take and the technologies we build.   

He suggested that as technologists it is our responsibility to create a peaceful, just and fair society for everyone; to be good ancestors for future generations; and that the responsibility for, and the power to create a just and fair society, is more in our hands than anybody else's.  

He challenged the audience to look far beyond their current product when working backwards, to look at the societal and social implications of what we do and to focus on being a better ancestor; leaving the world better than we found it through the work we do.  When you become an innovator you become more powerful, and that means you must become more responsible.  You need to assess the long-term effects of the work you do, not just in terms of your product but also for your teams, your company and for society as a whole.  Assess not just the immediate value of your creativity, but also the long-term effects of it. 

Quoting Gustavo Petro, Mayor of Bogotá, "a developed country is not a place where the poor have cars, it’s where the rich use public transportation".  He urged the members of the audience to be:

Designers who make their projects part of the larger social world and make the world better one app at a time. The way to make a better world is to make sure that every tiny piece of of the world that you create makes you a better ancestor for your decendants. 

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