We continue our conversation with Alan Cooper at Sue and Alan’s warm and welcoming ranch in Petaluma, CA, which, in addition to themselves, is home to sheep and chickens, a cat named Monkey, and a farmer who works the land.
Part 2 brings us up to present-day, and discussions around the applications and fundamentals of Goal-Directed Design that support its success at Cooper and beyond.
From Theory to Practice
CK: Okay, so having established the foundation of Goal-Directed Design in Part 1 of our conversation, let’s fast forward now to after you started your company, Cooper Software. How has GDD figured in?
AC: Basically you find one person, understand their vision and their final desired end state, and then make them ecstatically happy about reaching their end state. That is the essence of Goal-Directed Design. And what you need are two things: 1) Find (or synthesize) the right person and 2) Design for that person. At a place like Apple, Steve Jobs was already that right person, and they needed look no further. For us at Cooper, a team of trained designers needs to synthesize the representative user, called a persona.
CK: Can you say a little more about Personas and their context in the process?
AC: Personas are the end result of going out in the field and researching the users and patterns that indicate what their desired end state is. Then we create the archetypical persona and walk that archetype through a scenario, like a test flight simulator using a proposed solution. And when your persona’s needs are satisfied in multiple scenarios, you know you are on the right track.
Designers at Cooper can go into healthcare, tech, or jet engine design, wrap their head around it and articulate the representative user’s desired end state, and from there identify the right problem to solve. Then synthesizing form just becomes the work, not magic at that point.
CK: I’ve heard you talk about pair design being part of the success of this goal-directed process. Can you touch on that a bit?
AC: Yes, at Cooper Goal-Directed Design is enhanced by our practice of pair design. Rather than wrestling with a problem alone, externalizing the problem with a partner usually yields the most success. And building on that, it turns out pairs work most effectively in particular combinations of skills. We found that designers tend to naturally fall into two camps, and we ended up calling these designers Generators and Synthesizers. You could think of the Generator as the driver and the Synthesizer as the navigator. You need both of them to get where you’re going, and it’s not that the Generator can’t navigate or the Synthesizer can’t drive, it’s just that if you try to navigate while you’re driving you might crash into something, and you’ll go slower, and you might miss turns. And if you try to drive while you’re navigating, you’re going to end up not taking the most optimal route, and you might forget to stop for gas when you should, and you might end up backtracking.
In the early days when we were inventing these roles, we were a little more prescriptive about them, with the Generators always at the whiteboard and the Synthesizers taking notes, but as this became successful we realized we didn’t have to be so doctrinaire about it, they could switch roles and become much more fluid and even more effective. But in principle, the Generator is usually saying, “we could do this! and we could do that!” – coming up with ideas, and Synthesizers have the analytical role to question each idea and build and shape it.
CK: For a lot of designers the places where they work are not so receptive to pair design because they don’t think it’s efficient.
AC: That’s true. And what those places are missing is that in this post-industrial age, efficiency is less useful than effectiveness. Apple, for example, is ridiculously inefficient. They spend money to work and re-work a problem and other companies would say they are wasting it. But Apple knows that saving money doesn’t lead to success, making their customers ecstatically happy leads to success. And of course success leads to money. But getting internal buy-in and support is certainly an issue for many. At Cooper we offer training in Design Leadership that helps with this.
CK: I have a feeling questions around that post-industrial business model could spark a whole conversation in itself. As we wind up here, I’m wondering if you know of a good case study that demonstrates Goal-Directed Design in action?
AC: I do! SketchUp is a great example. It’s an architectural sketching tool, and it’s complicated and powerful, and it has a learning curve, and it’s definitely not for everyone, but I love the program because the design is brilliant – at the macro level and the micro level. I used SketchUp to design the new chicken coop here at Monkey Ranch.
At the macro level they understood exactly the problem they were trying to solve. Other modeling programs like AutoCAD are painfully counter-intuitive, with a learning cliff, much less a learning curve. You have to be a professional to want to bother to use one of those tools — there is nothing coherent, you just have to memorize about 80 tools.
With SketchUp, I know from their website and video and blogs that they used Goal-Directed Design. Their vision was not to displace AutoCAD, instead they had in mind this idea of an architect who has just presented the initial design of a building to the client, and the client says, “I love it! Could you make this stairway a little wider?” And in the AutoCAD world, it goes like this: “yes, we’ll have the drawings back to you in three days.” But in the SketchUp world, the architect says, “sure,” and clicks the extrusion tool on the side face of the stairway, stretches it out another foot, the staircase is wider, and everything in the model instantly adjusts to fit. That was their persona, their scenario, and that was the goal direction. So that’s from a macro point view – they understood that they weren’t trying to create an architectural drafting program that competed with set piece giant architectural drawings.
Also, at the micro level, they designed their controlling interface as a coherent system. Throughout the interface everything is consistent, all of the interactions have the same fundamental grammar. If you understand how one tool work works you understand all of the tools. And they anticipate the exacting needs of architectural planners, understanding just when you need to type in numbers or simply move the lines. This profound understanding of how you can build an interface permeates everything they do, and that’s a great example of successful Goal-Directed Design.
CK: That’s an inspiring example.
AC: It is. In the decades since Cooper conceived of Goal-Directed Design, the benefits of this practice have really been lasting and measurable. Project teams are able to start out with a shared understanding of goals and achieve early consensus on the design problem. And because designers develop empathy for the people who will use the product, they are able to focus on the right priorities. In the end, training and support and development costs are significantly reduced, and consumers experience ease and delight in the products.
CK: I think that’s the perfect note to end on. Thanks, Alan, for kicking off Cooper’s Masters In Conversation series, it’s been great to talk with you!