Pair Design and the Power of Thought Partnership

From Lennon & McCartney to Holmes & Watson, popular culture is teeming with examples of creative pairs. When we think about famous creative partnerships like Eames & Eames, or creative problem solvers like Mulder & Scully, what’s special about them?

In addition to their individual genius, what makes these pairs so effective (and what we’re talking about when we advocate Pair Design) is that these are true thought partnerships, in which each person has…​

  • shared ownership of what they’re creating
  • shared responsibility for making it great
  • shared risks and rewards if they succeed or fail

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The sCoop: week of February 27

Sure we’re designers, but what do we like to do for fun? This week, we filled our spare time with coaching our friends, listening to thought-provoking talks, beaming with pride for our clients, discovering cool new tools and sources of inspiration, debating photo philosophy, laughing out loud, and gearing up for another round of teaching. Here’s what we’ve been up to:


We kicked off our first session of office hours with the new Rock Health crew. Attendance was high, with seven teams coming in for 1:1 sessions with a Cooperista, each tackling a specific type of problem based on the team’s needs. More on these great sessions next week…


We took a break from speaking this week (in solidarity with Alan, Doug, and Nick as they put finishing touches on their upcoming talks at SXSW) and instead doubled down on listening, checking out some inspiring thinkers on the subjects of storytelling and alternative education.

First up was an inspiring talk at CCA from the very talented Jonathan Harris, creator of Cowbird and We feel fine. We love this guy; how do we make more of him in the world? If you haven’t looked around in, you should. One of our fave quotes of his is: “I think we’re going to want more nourishment from our technology.” And a key question he asked we’ll strive to answer while we design is: “What’s the quality of a human I am trying to amplify through this technology?”

Next up, author and Forbes blogger Michael Ellsberg came by our offices to talk about our shared interest in education and brainstorm opportunities to collaborate to further that mission. Later that night, Michael spoke at the Commonwealth Club, expanding on his vision for alternative education that focuses on developing practical success skills for the real world, as opposed to “college skills”. This is the theme of his new book, “The Education of Millionaires

As an added bonus, after the talk Michael introduced Kendra and Teresa to his father, Pentagon Papers activist Daniel Ellsberg, who proceeded to charm and dazzle them with scarf tricks. It’s not every day that you get to participate in magic tricks with “the most dangerous man in America”!


We’re like proud parents when we see our work getting praise out in the world, so we were thrilled to hear that Practice Fusion’s iPad EMR prototype got noticed at HIMSS last week:
“I got to use it and was very impressed with the design and approach to mobile. The app strips out anything not essential to physicians seeing patients and charting encounters. Basically the iPad app is not simply a mobile version of the EMR — it is mobile clinical tool specific to patient encounters. The rest of the functionality of Practice Fusion (scheduling, PM, etc,) is left to the Web/desktop version. The app itself flows like the Twitter iPad app, with expanding and collapsing frames all built specifically for touch experience.”


If infographics are your thing, you’ll want to check out what Chris gushingly referred to as “The most beautiful annual report concept I’ve seen in a long while.” And don’t miss the buzz-worthy IL-Intelligence in Lifestyle, the monthly magazine of Il Sole 24 ORE, Italy’s leading financial daily. This video interview with Art director, Francesco Franchi shows off some of their handiwork, and you can see more at his portfolio site.

On the topic of public good, our mouths were watering over news of the nation’s first food forest, a public park in Seattle planted with hundreds of kinds of edibles, from pears to walnuts, all available for public consumption. And we put our money where our mouths are with Redesign Democracy, a Kickstarter project to redesign voting ballots. Want a group who’s investigating grassroots, affordable, open-source biotech? Yeah, the Bay Area’s got that.

We gained efficiencies and drew inspiration from tools like Dropmark, Memolane, and Readability’s new mobile apps, checked out a cool Windows Desktop UI concept, and read some thought-provoking articles on new visual proportions for the iOS user interface and hidden gems in UI details.


We’ve been known to “trade perspectives” on all kinds of topics around the office, so we were interested to discover this “rant” and subsequent commentary on the ethics of instagram for journalistic photos, which called to mind a recent spirited debate between Stefan and Chris on the topic of post processing photos. Purists like Chris argue that it alters the image, compromising the authenticity. Others, like Stefan, think all tools distort the original and authentic, so you might as well make it look good. Feel free to declare your allegiance to team Chris or team Stefan in the comments.


We cracked up over this clip from Stephen Colbert, which serves as a cautionary tale on the perils of trying to control your brand too tightly.


Want more Cooper goodness? Come to Cooper U!

The sCoop: week of October 10

After pausing for our in memoriam issue last week, there’s lots to catch up on.

We’re eagerly awaiting Indi Young’s one-day workshop on Mental Models at Cooper U. Join us on November 14 for what is sure to be a great session. Meanwhile, Susan gave a talk about designing for health, and judged teams at UC Berkeley’s Health Hackathon.

Golden and Greg cheered for Platfora, hoisting a sign featuring font and imagery from the startup’s newly-launched Cooper-designed website.
Golden and Greg raise Platfora’s new sign

We said “Do svidaniya” to Chris, Alan, Tamara, and Kendra as they made their way to Moscow this week for some design glasnost. More on that next week…

We considered a living art installation to spruce up a bare wall…but settled on a solution that combines our love for Tom Selleck and typefaces.
Stefan as a living art installation

We pondered all the things we could accomplish with ifttt and wondered what Siri would say next. And we gave a hearty golf clap to Netflix for returning to their senses.

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The sCoop: week of October 3

This week’s sCoop is dedicated to the legacy of Steve Jobs. Though most of us never knew him personally, as designers, Steve’s death has touched us all in very individual and very personal ways. Below, Cooper staff, alumni, and clients share some reflections on the impact Steve had on our industry, our careers, and our lives.

Doug LeMoine

Obviously, all interaction designers are indebted to Steve Jobs, so I want to personally say: Thanks for making it a little bit easier to explain what I do. And even more importantly: Thanks for demonstrating to the rest of tech world the power of good taste, and the differentiating power of design. Let’s be frank, Apple’s success continues to be a major reason why “design” has so much currency in business these days, and I’m personally relieved that I’ve been subjected to very few conversations about “the ROI of design” since the iPhone debuted in 2007.

Of course, Steve Jobs wasn’t a designer. In tech organization terms, he was more like a superhuman product manager. I don’t mean to diminish his organizational achievement; he was a chief executive who built a powerhouse. Nevertheless, he had an uncommonly direct impact at a very low level in product development. He could blow up a schedule if he wanted to (and he did); he could blow up a product if he wanted to (and he did); he could hire the best, and get the best out of them (or fire them). To top it off, he knew a good thing when he saw it, down to the last detail.

In other execs, his behavior would be seen as micromanagement or schizophrenia, but Apple seemed to thrive on it and vibrate with the energy of a start-up. Manic, urgent, cultish. Jobs himself was perpetually restless, always aware that a company’s window of opportunity was narrow, as he said in this introduction to an ad campaign: “We’re not going to get a chance to get people to remember much about us. No company does. And so we have to be really clear about what we want them to know about.” Then he showed the original Think Different commercial. Wow … I mean, WOW. It all seems so easy and obvious in retrospect, but I guess that’s what they say about all the crazy ones. Here’s to Steve Jobs; only a truly Crazy One could have pulled this off.

Cooper alum Jonathan Korman

Steve Jobs (1955-2011): Titan of industry. Look at his face at 4:00

He’s not smiling for the applause. He’s smiling because he got it done.
The loss of him would have been news if he had only created the personal computer industry. Or if he had only committed to turning the Xerox Star into the Macintosh, “the first computer good enough to be worth criticizing.” Or if he had only founded the first major computer animation film studio. Or if he had only rescued Apple from the brink of disintegration. Or if he had only led the Macintosh renaissance of OS X and the iMac et cetera. Or had only rescued the music industry from their own stupidity. Or had only captained the creation of either the iPhone or the iPad. Having done all of those is hard to conceive, even knowing it to have happened. A life well lived. Let’s memorialize him by making it unexceptional that a corporation should make beautiful products that empower people and bring them joy, shall we?

Chris Noessel

I feel I owe him some thanks. Personally for some of the beautiful software experiences he oversaw and for many software experiences he made possible. As an interaction design industry we owe him for raising interaction design to the forefront of product experiences and pushing the computer industry forward at a pace it might not have initially been comfortable with. He’s also an iconic figure, coming up in design discussions with clients as a litmus test for purist, beautiful, uncompromising design. (Even sometimes unfairly absorbing the credit for Ives and others who worked with him, but still: WWSJD?)

My closest connection: Apple was a client when I worked at marchFIRST, and I was the information architect for the first launch. I made a 3D map to illustrate my design. Though I wasn’t present at the meeting where it was shared, when Jobs saw the map he interrupted the meeting to point at the map and ask, “Is that one of our guys?” Even that recognition was enough to have thrilled me as a young designer at the time. No, it wasn’t, Steve, but thanks for asking. :) RIP.

Kim Appelquist

I was studying “commercial art” using Rapidograph pens, Letraset type, and trees of tissue paper. I enrolled in a PC-based “computer-aided” drafting course. It took five steps to draw a line. I decided to be a chef. Then the Macintosh came out and changed everything. I’ve been in and around design ever since. The cooking still comes in handy.

Client and friend John Chaffins

A sad day Wednesday. When I was 16, my Grandmother offered to help me either purchase a car or a computer. I chose the computer, an Apple IIe. My life was forever changed by that decision. Everything that I started learning then has enabled me to travel the world, earn a living, support my family, and have so much fun in so many different ways. None of this would have been possible if not for the vision, creative genius, and perseverance of Steve Jobs. It’s hard to imagine any one person having as much impact on the way that the world works, lives, and plays that he has. Thank you, Steve, may you rest in peace.

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What it means to be a rock star

At Cooper, we hire stars. There, I said it. No apologies.

Not divas, not egomaniacs. Just the brightest designers we can find. You’ve got to be that good in order to leave your ego at the door, which is exactly what our methods demand.

Cooper is a highly collaborative environment: our paired design approach challenges designers to work together to deliver synthesis, ideation and exploration, design, and communication that stands up to skepticism and scrutiny. If you’re sketching design ideas, there’s someone right there with you, pointing out weak spots and pushing you to evolve the designs in ways that better serve your users’ and your client’s goals. You’d better have a deep bullpen of great ideas, because you’re going to need them. And when you’re poking holes in your partner’s design ideas, you’re going to need a stronger reason than “I like my idea better.” Read More

Mommy, where do ideas come from?

Last week some designers from Google came to our studio for a discussion about the  practice of interaction design. We each shared a bit about our team structures and processes, and talked about some of the unique challenges that we face as a consultancy vs an in-house design team. But some of the most interesting discussions emerged when we focused on the areas of overlap – the basic bread and butter of interaction design. One of the most provocative questions posed by the Googlers was simply: “Where do ideas come from?”

We spend a lot of time thinking and talking about how we do things around here, but if we’re honest, this is the “then a miracle occurs” step in our design process.

This is where the rubber meets the road for every designer: you’ve done your research, synthesis, and analysis to clearly articulate the problem you’re trying to solve, and now it’s time to produce that winning design solution. You get up, grab a marker, and hope inspiration strikes somewhere along those five small steps to the whiteboard. As seasoned designers, it’s not something we think much about anymore – it just happens (unless it doesn’t). But as mentors, it’s important not to yada yada yada the best part (though we DID mention the lobster bisque).

So this week, we’ve spent a little time looking inward to try to develop a deeper understanding of where design ideas come from. Here’s what we found:

Research matters

Cooper designers conduct our own user research, and many feel that this provides indispensible fuel for design ideas. Experiencing real people in their actual environments fuels our senses of empathy and intuition that helps to guide us towards the ideas that make people happy, successful (and even better looking). Plus, the research phase affords us the opportunity to be fully immersed in the users and the domain for a few weeks at the start of the project, which in addition to providing rich data and empathy, also gives our brains boot-up time to start noodling on the problem and explore possible solutions in the background. Many of our designers confessed that they often doodle during interviews, sketching design ideas when inspiration strikes without the pressure of being expected to produce a solution. At the end of the research and analysis phase when patterns, goals, and requirements have been formally defined, designers can flip back through these quick sketches and easily pick out the good ideas from the bad and begin to improve upon them based on their deeper understanding of the users and the problems that must be solved.

Sometimes, words are worth 1,000 pictures

The first step in our design ideation process comes before any “official” sketching is done: we describe the users’ ideal experience in words. The scenarios we develop at this stage are forward-looking and technology-agnostic, focusing on the personas and how they think, feel and behave rather than on specific interface elements or technical implementations. We also identify experience keywords that describe the emotional response that users should have to the product. Not having to answer the “how” frees us up to think big, imagining the best-case scenario for how the product supports each persona in achieving his or her goals. Then, when it comes time to actually start sketching and exploring interaction, form and visual languages, we’re already united around a clear vision for the kind of experience that would truly delight our users, helping us to focus on design solutions and visual styles that most fully embody that vision.

Just do it

Fear of the blank page can be daunting for all of us. Sometimes, just pushing past that fear and starting to sketch can get the juices flowing. Our designers make sure to have a tablet, sketchpad, or whiteboard easily accessible at all times, and we don’t wait until we have a fully formed thought or idea to use them. We may look like we have a brilliant idea in our heads as we approach the whiteboard, but often those few short steps aren’t where the thinking actually happens – the ideas start to come only after we draw the first few rectangles. There’s something special about the process of sketching – even jotting down some really bad ideas helps us learn about the tensions on the problem and gets us closer to a workable solution. (See Bill Buxton’s Sketching User Experiences for a fantastic exploration of the idea that the act of sketching is integral to ideation and design problem solving.) Read More

Putting personas under the microscope

We recently came across a research study conducted by Frank Long at the National College of Art and Design that investigated the value of personas as a design tool. In his research paper, titled “Real or Imaginary: The effectiveness of using personas in product design,” Long concludes:

The results showed that, through using personas, designs with superior usability characteristics were produced. They also indicate that using personas provides a significant advantage during the research and conceptualization stages of the design process.

I’m impressed by Long’s efforts to gather evidence to support the claims of persona fans like myself, and am not surprised by the positive outcomes attributed to the use of personas. But in the debate over personas’ usefulness, I’m not quite ready to spike the ball and call it game over just yet.

As we all know, skeptics of personas abound. I won’t be dedicating my life to converting the non-believers, but I hate to see designers dismiss a useful tool simply because its’ worth has not been adequately demonstrated to them. Frank Long’s research is a great start, but I suspect that more work is needed to deliver compelling evidence that will persuade the detractors. Read More

Checkout checkup: Sites that get it right

Recent reports on the holiday shopping season show that despite the tough economy resulting in a sharp decline in spending overall, the shift from brick and mortar to online shopping continues. Because “going to another store” in the online world is as easy as a mouse click, retaining customers throughout the shopping and buying process is critical. Does your site have what it takes to give customers a satisfying shopping experience and earn their loyalty?

Between some friends’ regrettably-timed birthdays and the holidays themselves, the past month has provided me ample opportunity to interact with and admire recent advances in online shopping and checkout design. From that admittedly unscientific sample, here are some thoughts on key aspects of the checkout experience to consider, as well as my take on the winners at each step.

Searching and inspecting

They say you never get a second chance to make a first impression. As your customers’ first encounter with your site, the searching and inspecting experience is critical. Think of your site’s browse and detail pages as a top-notch personal shopper, and design them to mirror the qualities and behaviors of superstars in that role:

  • Flexible: Make sure your site supports multiple modes of shopping (such as browsing within broad categories as well as focused searching based on specific criteria), and enables users to easily recover if they click into the wrong item or just want to continue shopping.
  • Good listener: Many customers have a pretty good idea of what they’re looking for – is your site designed to listen? Filters that expose a wide selection of available criteria, work together, and support multiple values are great ‘listeners’. If you’re not sure what options to provide, monitor the use of your search box to identify filter candidates.
  • Efficient: Performance matters, so be sure you’ve tuned your page updates to deliver lightning-fast results.
  • Forthcoming: Ensure that your browse pages provide users enough information to quickly disqualify undesired items and develop strong interest in appropriate items, and that detail pages include all information needed to close the sale. While a picture is worth 1,000 words, it can’t say anything if it’s too small – an image size that’s ample for displaying a collection of small items like shoes or belts could induce squinting and frustration when presenting full-length dresses. On browse pages, provide a control for adjusting image size, and include interactive swatches of color options to reduce the need to drill in. On detail pages, provide multiple views and close-ups with minimal navigation.

Winner: Endless

endless search.jpg
This site rocks my world with a half-dozen filter categories that work in tandem, allow multiple values, can be reset with a single click, and update results in the blink of an eye. Replacing the ‘more colors’ bar with a row of interactive color swatches would earn them an A+.

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Feeling passionate about Amazon’s Frustration-Free packaging

As my fellow Cooperistas will attest, I’m passionate about a lot of things: interaction design, birthday cake, shoes… But product packaging? No, I wouldn’t have included that last one in the list – at least, not until I caught myself swooning over Amazon’s new Frustration-Free packaging.


Suddenly, it all came back to me in a rush of emotion: the anger, frustration, and threat of serious injury when struggling to extract a tiny memory card from its giant plastic “clamshell” package. The tedium and anxiety of twisting countless plastic-coated wire ties in a seemingly never-ending effort to release toy components from incarceration before the child loses interest and starts playing with an empty box instead. The disbelief and disgust over the trail of excessive plastic waste left behind after opening a single product. And I am not alone. To tap into the packaging-frustration zeitgeist, Amazon has encouraged customers to post pictures and videos of their worst experiences to the Gallery of Wrap Rage, and the responses are pouring in.

These consumer-hostile packaging practices are a perfect example of business needs trumping user needs. For far too long, companies have designed packaging that serves only two masters: product marketing and theft reduction. Mark Hurst’s This Is Broken features a particularly rich example of product packaging that fails to address the need to get the item out of the package.

Because Amazon doesn’t have to deal with retail display or shoplifting, they were in a unique position to sidestep the usual drivers for package design and think (pardon the pun) “outside the box”, focusing on customers’ goal of liberating products from the package so they can actually use them! And as Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos notes in his letter to customers introducing the program, “in addition to making packages easier to open, a major goal of the Frustration-Free Packaging initiative is to be more environmentally friendly by using less packaging material.” According to their FAQs, products with Frustration-Free Packaging can often be shipped in their own boxes, without an additional shipping box.

Just in time for the holiday consume-a-thon, Amazon delivers human-friendly, eco-friendly package design. Now really, who wouldn’t be passionate about that? Read More

The 5 habits of highly effective project teams

Here at Cooper, we’re pretty well known for our holistic and methodical approach to design, but don’t let that fool you – when the situation calls for it, we’re more than happy to get all “mavericky” with our clients and provide some good old fashioned ad-hoc consulting.

For example, I was recently asked to provide management support to a client who is in the midst of implementing a Cooper re-design of their robust web application. As I immersed myself in the project, I was quickly reminded of my previous life as a project manager and business analyst at a large software company, and how easy it is to fall into the many efficiency traps that often permeate large-scale development projects.

Over the course of my recent engagement, I identified several critical success factors for effective project teams, and some specific things that both project managers and team members can do to ensure project success. Read More