Why Design Documentation Matters

At Cooper we design products that empower and delight the people who use them. Design documentation is integral to our process because it communicates the design itself, the rationale for decisions we made, and the tools for clients to carry on once the project wraps up.

Good design documentation doesn’t just specify all the pixel dimensions and text styles and interaction details (which it must). It can also tell the high-level story, stitch together the big picture, and get internal stakeholders excited about the vision. One of our primary goals as outside consultants is to build consensus and momentum around the design—documentation can speak to executives as well as developers. After all, we’re usually leaving a lot of the hard work of design implementation on the client’s doorstep, and building great software starts with getting all the stakeholders on board.

Design documentation should create trust and provide consistency for future iterations of the design thinking. We believe it’s important to give the rationale and context behind design decisions. Answering the “why?” of design helps new team members get on board down the road, prevents wasted effort later when old questions get rehashed, and provides the starting point for prioritization and roadmap discussions. This facet of the process is too often overlooked or omitted for expediency, but trust us: clients will thank you later.

The best design documentation gives the client a unified design language, a framework for talking about the design, and a platform for improving the design over time. Static documentation is quickly becoming a thing of the past—we’re always looking for new documentation techniques and delivery mechanisms because we want to equip our clients with the most approachable and actionable information possible. Delivering design documentation marks the beginning of the client’s journey, not the end.

Design > Critique > Repeat

There’s a lot of writing out there on how to run a productive critique.

One of my favorites is by Jake Knapp of Google Ventures where he lays out nine rules to follow. For example, one great rule is to write it before you say it – this requires 5-10 minutes of silent time to look at the work and write down your initial reactions. It allows you to respond to the work individually – eliminating groupthink. Scott Berkun also wrote a great guide on setting up a critique and goes into the details of specific questions to ask and what materials you’ll need.

So you’ve followed the best practices and just had a super productive critique.

Now what?

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Your Flat Design is Convenient for Exactly One of Us

Illustration built on creative commons 2.0 Portrait of a Man by Flickr user and photographer Yuri Samoilov

I’m OK with fashion in interaction design. Honestly I am. It means that the field has grappled with and conquered most of the basics about how to survive, and now has the luxury of fretting over what scarf to wear this season. And I even think the flat design fashion of the day is kind of lovely to look at, a gorgeous thing for its designers’ portfolios.

But like corsets or foot binding, extreme fashions come at a cost that eventually loses out to practicality. Let me talk about this practicality for a moment.

In The Design of Everyday Things, Donald Norman distinguished between two ways that we know how to use a thing: information in the world, and information in your head.

Information in the world is stuff a user can look at to figure out. A map posted near the subway exit is information in the world. Reference it when you need it, ignore it when you don’t.

Information in the head is the set of declarative and procedural rules that users memorize about how to use a thing. That you need to keep your subway pass to exit out of the subway is information in your head. Woe be to the rider to throws their ticket away thinking they no longer need it.

For flat design purists, skeuomorphism is something akin to heresy, but it’s valuable because it belongs to this former category of affordance: it is information in the world. For certain, the faux-leather and brushed-aluminum interfaces that Apple had been pumping out were just taking things way too far in that direction, to a pointless mimicry of the real world. But a button that looks like a thing you can press with your finger is useful information for the user. It’s an affordance based on countless experiences of living in a world that contains physical buttons.

Pure, flat design doesn’t just get rid of dead weight. It shifts a burden. What once was information in the world, information borne by the interface, is now information in users’ heads, information borne by them. That in-head information is faster to access, but it does require that our users become responsible for learning it, remembering it, and keeping it up to date. Is the scroll direction up or down this release? Does swipe work here? Well I guess you can damned well try it and see. As an industry now draped in flat design, we’ve tidied up our workspace by cluttering our user’s brains with memorized instruction booklets for using our visually sparse, lovely designs.

So though the runways of interaction design are just gorgeous right now, I suspect there will be a user-sized sigh of relief when things begin to slip a bit back the other way (without the faux leather, Apple). Something to think about as we gear up our design thinking for the new year.

UX Boot Camp with Marketplace Money

Old School Radio Meets the Digital Age

Take a look inside Cooper’s June, 2013 UX Boot Camp with American Public Media’s Marketplace Money radio show, where students explored the next horizon of audio programming—a paradigm shift from broadcast to conversation-based platforms.

The Challenge
Students rolled up their sleeves to help the show respond to the trend away from traditional radio by finding the right mix of alternative distribution platforms. Marketplace Money came equally ready to take a radical departure from their current format in order to create a new model that redefines the roles of host, show, and audience in the digital age. To reach this goal, students focused on designing solutions that addressed three big challenges:

  1. Engage a new, younger audience that is tech savvy, and provide easy access to content via new platforms, such as podcasts, satellite radio shows, and the Internet.
  2. Inspire audience participation and contribution. Facilitate conversations and inspire people to share their personal stories so that listeners can learn from each other.
  3. Design ways for the host to carry an influential brand or style that extends beyond the limits of the show and engage with the audience around personal finance, connecting with listeners in ways that are likeable, useful, and trustworthy, making the topic of personal finance cool, fun and approachable.

At the end of the four-day Boot Camp, student teams presented final pitches to Marketplace Money, and a panel of experienced Cooper designers offered feedback on their ideas and presentations.In the following excerpts from each day, you can test your own sensory preferences for receiving content as you see, hear and read how design ideas evolved at the Boot Camp, inspiring new relationships between people and radio.

Marketplace Money Class

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UX Boot Camp Goes to Europe

Guest post by Francesca Di Mari at Sketchin, a Swiss user experience design firm based in Lugano.

At  Sketchin we strongly believe that design can improve lives and foster social good. We first heard of Cooper’s UX Boot Camp when we visited Cooper in September, 2012, and we fell in love with their idea of using design to educate and foster social good by bridging design students with non-profits. This idea was conceived of and developed by Kendra Shimmell, the Managing Director at Cooper U, and it launched our determination to be part of a design revolution for social good.

Our first step was to create our own UX Boot Camp modeled after what we experienced at Cooper. So in May of 2013, together with Talent Garden Milano and Frontiers of Interaction, we organized the first Italian UX Boot Camp in Milan, modeled after the Cooper UX Boot Camp. Here is a look back at what we created and discovered in the process.

UX Bootcamp Milano 15

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Telling visual stories for science

The other night I attended a presentation/panel discussion about visual science communication. Well, I should say I had a terrific dinner at Wexler’s first, then attended a presentation/panel discussion. These panels are better with a cocktail in you.

The event took place at swissnex. I think they like their name uncapitalized. I’m still a bit unclear about what swissnex is. The name struck me as delicious-sounding, like something you’d pair with Nutella in the morning. Swissnex. Your Toast’s Best Friend.

I read their annual report and sat in their event space, so I know that they are a non-profit, they are staffed by lots of competent Swiss people, and they like to underline text. I’m guessing it’s some kind of quasi-governmental Swiss cultural mission. Anyway, they host presentations about art and science, and do fun things like get Swiss kids to think about what 2023 will look like. All very wholesome.

The speakers at this event were a motley crew, and some are doing truly interesting work designing things to communicate science to the public. There was Michele Johnson, for example, a “public affairs officer” for the Kepler mission at NASA Ames. Kepler is a space telescope orbiting the sun, looking for Earth-like planets. She talked about how they manage to create a huge beautifully-rendered picture of a distant planet using only 6 pixels of image data. Obviously, it involves making a lot of assumptions. (I think the Kepler people are a tad jealous of Hubble, pumping out eye candy for the public, no need to emblazen “artist rendering” all over them like a Barry Bonds asterisk. I’d be jealous, too. It’s the difference between a webcam from 1995 and a telephoto DSLR. But they do impressive work, despite their constraints.)

Another interesting panelist was Ryan Wyatt, the director of the planetarium at the California Academy of Sciences. He showed us the visualization his team created for their EARTHQUAKE!!! exhibit. Pretty sweet. And kind of mind-bending, because they’re designing this uber-animation for the domed ceiling of the planetarium, projected with at least a half dozen overlapping light systems. They are an active and talented bunch, it seems. Six full-time staff work on science visualizations at the museum. (Edit: over-estimated the size of the team. Thanks, Ryan!)

There was also Joe Hanson, who does a PBS Youtube show called “It’s OK to Be Smart.” His main point: that creating engaging video content (about science, or drunk make-up tips, or whatever) is easy, can be done on a shoestring budget, and please please please release your stuff to Creative Commons so that other people can re-mix and re-use for free.

It ended late, so I wasn’t in the mood to hob-nob too much. Plus that cocktail was beginning to weigh on my consciousness. But I left with a feeling that the problems the UX community face aren’t so different from our compatriots doing science visualization. Sure, science viz is less concerned with usability and affordance (museum exhibits being a big exception). But we both have to synthesize input from subject matter experts. We both juggle the demands of clients and users and resources. We both strive to create artifacts that engage our users, drawing them in, immersing them in an experience, distilling complexity into its essential pieces. Our two communities, seemingly distinct, have a lot to learn from each other.

Watch: What Good is a Screen?








It was a full house of design thinkers with a Silicon Valley twist. Serial Entrepreneurs. Voice-activation specialists. Tech wunderkinds. An evening of passionate discussion about the future of interfaces.

“I felt like I was back in college — the good parts of college,” Strava designer Peter Duyan told me afterwards.

Peter was crammed in this room of college-like discourse — designed for 35, now seating over 60 — because of a blog post I wrote that went unexpectedly viral.

I had proposed that “the best interface is no interface.” That we should focus on experiences and problems, not on screens. That UX is not UI. Two days after it was published, it was shared more on Twitter than anything ever written on The Cooper Journal, Core77 or Designer Observer. A week later, a Breaking Development podcast. Two weeks, a popular Branch discussion. A month, top ten on Hacker News again. All surprising, flattering, amazing. And that evening, a conversation.

In the spirit of discourse, special guest and design legend Don Norman started the evening with an entertaining retort: “They made a big mistake when they invited me.” (Watch it above, or listen to it here. And if you haven’t read his books, you should).

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Fixing a broken user experience featured on Smashing Magazine

There’s innumerable ways to arrive at a state where a company’s product offerings present a frustrating or broken user experience. Few organizations can’t realistically throw everything away and start over. If it’s broken, you need a strategy that allows you to iterate toward a better user experience. Cooper’s Stefan Klocek outlines one approach Cooper uses with clients to improve user experience across an organization’s suite of products.

From the article:

Unless you’re developing completely new products at a startup, you likely work in an organization that has accumulated years of legacy design and development in its products. Even if the product you’re working on is brand spanking new, your organization will eventually need to figure out how to unify the whole product experience, either by bringing the old products up to par with the new or by bringing your new efforts in line with existing ones. A fragmented product portfolio sometimes leads to an overall broken user experience.

Understanding an organization and its users and designing the right interaction and visual system take exceptional effort. You also need to communicate that system to teams that have already produced work that doesn’t align with it. This isn’t easy work. In this article, we’ll introduce you to a strategy for fixing the broken experience that starts with surface improvements, goes progressively deeper into structural issues and ends with a big organizational shift.

Read the rest of the article, meet The Hierarchy of Effort (pictured below), and enjoy the discussion over at Smashing Magazine.

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