Explore New Interaction Paradigms at UX Boot Camp: Wikimedia

Advance and apply your UX design skills to a meaningful real-world problem in this intensive, hands-on workshop


This September, join Wikimedia, Cooper, and design-thinkers from around the world as we find new ways to spread knowledge through mobile Wikipedia. In this four-day workshop, you’ll use new UX skills to make mobile content contribution more approachable, intuitive, and less reliant on traditional input methods like typing. If you’ve wanted an excuse to explore new interaction paradigms and stay ahead of the design pack, this is your chance. Best of all, you get to do all of that in the creative classroom setting of Alan and Sue Cooper’s 50-acre ranch in Petaluma, CA.

Register now: UX Boot Camp: WikimediaSeptember 17-20, Petaluma, CA

What’s in it for you?

  • Learn new interaction techniques and approaches under the guidance of industry leaders, including Alan Cooper
  • Learn how to think through a problem from both a design and business perspective, rather than blindly applying methods by rote.
  • Energize your practice and make new connections by working on a real-world challenge with peers from around the world.
  • Beef up your portfolio with a smart, new design concept
  • Pick up leadership and collaboration skills that will help you better navigate your work environment.

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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.

OneNote for Interaction Designers, Part 3: Research and Presentation

OneNote is, as you’ve seen in the prior posts (OneNote for Interaction Designers and OneNote for Interaction Designers: the Nuts and Bolts, awesome for design meetings. But it’s also useful in research and client presentations, too.

How we use it in research

[From the video, slightly edited:] Having a laptop open in a research interview puts a barrier between you and the person you’re interviewing, and the typing can be quite distracting and intimidating for the interviewee. But typed notes are searchable, making for very useful reference when you’re synthesizing your notes. OneNote is a nice compromise. With a Tablet in slate mode, we remove the physical barrier of the laptop, and as long as you have the pen in a “Create Handwriting” mode, you can later go back and search your notes as if they were typed. (The handwriting recognition is pretty amazing.)
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OneNote for Interaction Designers, Part 2: Nuts and Bolts

In a prior post I explained how Cooper uses OneNote as a tool for Design Meetings. In this post I’m going to presume you’re a designer and eager to get a quick primer to the tool. Then I’ll share some best practices we’ve developed at Cooper.

A quick primer: Five tools

OneNote is a rich program, meant for a number of different scenarios. Here I’m only going to introduce the most basic concepts you need to get going on using OneNote as a quick design sketching tool.

1. The infinite canvas

You write on a canvas that is for all practical purposes, infinite. You can simply use the touch screen to slide to empty paper. That canvas can have a grid-paper like background, or it can be white. For most of the time I leave that grid on, to help keep lines straight and aesthetically pleasing.
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OneNote for Interaction Designers, Part 1

Whiteboards are cool, I guess. Fast, easy, familiar. But really, they’re nothing compared to digital sketching. At Cooper, we use digital sketching in almost all of our projects, and almost always in OneNote. In the next few posts I’ll share how we use it and why we think it’s awesome, see what you think. But first, to whet your appetite, some example drawings from Cooper designers straight out of the program.

These aren’t meant to be finished designs, of course, but examples of how communicative and illustrative designers can be with their earliest ideas using the tool, and doing so very quickly. Each of our designers has their particular way of working, but in general we share the same setup.

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Model Business: Turning Values into Value

Join Cooper and Fair Trade USA for the first Cooper Parlor and UX Boot Camp of 2013!

CooperParlor Photo7 jpg

Cooper Parlor is a gathering of designers and design-minded people to exchange ideas around a specific topic. We aim to cultivate conversation that instigates, surprises, entertains, and most importantly, broadens our community’s collective knowledge and perspective about the potential for design.

Upcoming Parlor: Model Business – Turning Values into Value


    : Patrick Keenan, Interaction Designer, Cooper


    : Thursday, February 21st


    : 6:30-8:30 (doors open at 6)


    : $15



Fair Trade USA,

    1500 Broadway #400, Oakland, CA

Save your space now.

Why does it make sense to pay more for coffee even if it tastes the same? How could it be successful to give away two pairs of shoes every time you sell one? What about the color red makes an iPod more expensive? It’s the business model, stupid. A business model is a design, not unlike a wireframe, but instead of describing an interaction in the world, it describes how a company creates and captures value in the marketplace. A well designed business model has the power to align personal values with routine purchases. But what are the patterns? And when is one business model more appropriate than another?

This Cooper Parlor will explore existing business models designed to help consumers put their money where their heart is. We’ll begin by looking at a couple of specific cases where values (moral principles) were turned into value (additional profit). Then, we’ll dive into how you can incorporate this framework into your design practice.

Why this topic?

The nonprofit partner for our March UX Boot Camp: Fair Trade USA inspired this conversation. We were intrigued by the certification system that Fair Trade USA uses to help consumers to connect with a deeper mission and put their money where their morals are. This got us thinking about other businesses and business models that put their values first. Coupled with Patrick’s insight into business models and how to map them, we thought this would be a perfect opportunity for exploration.

Want to Get Deeper into this Problem Space?

The parlor is an introduction to the larger exploration that we’ll have at the UX Boot Camp: Fair Trade USA this March. Together designers, developers, and project managers will be challenged to conceive of digital tools to enable advocates and influencers to ignite consumer demand for Fair Trade products to create a fundamental shift in the way goods are traded and purchased. This is a real opportunity to impact the future of Fair Trade USA, while beefing up your portfolio and making new connections.

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Interaction13 – Day 2 Recap

Yesterday we brought you designing strategy through a nonprofits eyes, ethical robots (depending on who you ask) and of course, the kegel organ. Here’s what we have in store for you today.

Follow all of Interaction13 through daily recaps on the Cooper Journal. Here’s Day 1,
Day 3,
Day 4.

IxD13 day2 collage

Designing Everything But the Food

By Sara Cantor Aye (Greater Good Studio)

This year, in partnership with SAIC, Greater Good Studio designed a built a new public school cafeteria. Although that sounds like an architecture project, it really meant looking at the interactions between kids and food, staff, space, and other kids.

Kids will be kids

Sara Cantor Aye walked us through the process of researching elementary school cafeteria design in order to help schools serve healthier food, reduce waste and educate. Along the way, her team discovered some interesting things. For instance, kids want to eat what their friends eat and don’t deal with forced choices well (who knew?)

Making cafeteria food fun?

Their constraints were tough, but the breakthrough was going from a cafeteria line to serving courses to the table. The magic was in the discovery of unanticipated benefits; kids were finally eating their lunches! Cafeteria lunches were fun again, for students and staff.

The shared eating experience wins over all

By focusing on the kid’s experience, using head cams, interviews inside family homes, and observing the cafeteria, they discovered that kids waste food because they don’t deal well with many choices on their plate. They were able to have a shared experience by having one item served to everyone at the same time. Just like a restaurant.

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Self-study Interaction Design

In classes and cocktail hours, lots of people ask me either how they can switch careers into interaction design, or how they can improve their self-trained “IxD” chops.

Of course Cooper offers a number of awesome training courses to help folks do just that (but we can’t be everywhere in the world at once) and there are great university courses here in San Francisco Bay Area and around the world (but not everyone can take that kind of time off).

So if you’re a self-starter, unable to attend a training session and can’t take time off for school, or want to be able to speak the language of interaction design, what can you do? How can you make those first steps to getting more familiar with the field?

I recommend reading up on some of the fundamentals, join up with practitioners online, and actually start designing. More on each follows.

Read up on the fundamentals

Get your hands on copies of the following three books and give them a good read. Not a flip through, and not a skim. These are the basic things you need to know. Please note that I’m aware of the conflict of interest of a Practice Lead at Cooper saying that two of three fundamental books are ones published by Cooper, but even after much handwringing and gnashing of teeth over the seeming conflict of interests, these are still my recommendations. They would be if I didn’t work here.

The Inmates Are Running the Asylum
by our own Alan Cooper

“Inmates” details the reasons why designers should lead the charge of software design, and why personas are the primary tool we use to do it.

The Design of Everyday Things
by Donald Norman

Norman plainly lays out the fundamentals of design thinking from cognitive psychology, industrial design, and interaction design standpoints.

About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design (Fourth edition)

About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design (4th Edition)
by Alan Cooper, Robert Reimann, David Cronin, & Christopher Noessel.

AF4 contains best practices for the medium of the human-computer interface.

(If you happen to be a sci-fi fan, I’ll certainly also recommend my own book and blog as a way of applying design thinking to interfaces that appear in that perennially-favorite genre, but it’s hardly considered a fundamental.)

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Ask the right questions, solve the right problems

UX design is fundamentally about solving problems. We call a design “good” if it solves a problem elegantly, cheaply, usably, and so on. I think it’s fair to say, though, that too little attention is paid to which problems need solving, which questions need answering. The interaction design practicum at Cooper U offers a slew of tools for solving design problems, but the really eye-opening parts of the course taught me to back up a step and think about how to find the right problem in the first place.

Over-focusing on design solutions is natural. Solving the problem is the fun part of the job, after all. Smart workflows, elegant wireframes, typographical brilliance, beautiful gradients, and clever CSS are the exciting materializations of great design thinking. Talking to people outside the organization is time-consuming and expensive, so intuition often substitutes for user research. But, as Cooper U hammered home, successful user-centered design has to mean more than relying on stale or imagined assumptions about the people to whom our design solutions ultimately matter.

A lot of design begins with someone asking “What do users want?” The temptation is then to go ask some users what they want. This frequently leads in the wrong direction; too often people don’t know how to articulate what they want. A “disruptive” product is precisely that: something people didn’t realize they wanted until they saw it, disrupting what they imagine to be possible.

A better question is to ask is: “What do users do?” This is where user research comes in. Users have ingrained mental models, habits, rituals, and idiosyncrasies. Finding the patterns is key to finding the right problems to solve.

At Cooper U, we practiced observing and describing and interviewing and categorizing users. Here’s what I learned: useful user research is difficult, draining, and requires practice. You can’t just wing it. It takes planning, persistence, and the right methods.

In these past months, I’ve done real-world user research for a number of design projects. Every researcher develops their own style, but the good ones are tireless recorders and observers. They let the real world they witness seep in and reveal the behavioral patterns in real people. Only then do they try to figure out what users want, and crystalize these patterns and desires into personas. They ask the right questions, then solve the right problems.

Get some

Stop designing before asking the right questions. Design things users want. If you want to up your user research game and bring new user-centered design skills to your practice and organization, check out one of our upcoming Cooper U courses.

Beyond the pixel: Measuring visual designers’ strategic value

I collaborate with clients about how to scope and staff project work, and they often have questions about when to bring a visual designer into the process. In the early part of my career, I wouldn’t have had a good answer; it likely would have been something like, “at the end.” But after 20 years of working in-house and as a consultant with product teams in various capacities — and having no background in visual design myself — I have a much different perspective on the value that visual design thinking has throughout the process of building a product.

Visual designers bring a unique perspective to product vision

First, visual designers are uniquely skilled at defining the overarching experience strategy, called attributes, for a product or service. These aren’t specific design principles, but rather descriptions of what the experience should feel like for users, customers, and anyone interacting with it.

One way to define experience attributes is to conduct an experience workshop, where you facilitate a brand and “look and feel” discussion with stakeholders. Framing the discussion by using visual artifacts (pictures of products, cars, buildings, interfaces, art, etc.) helps stakeholders to engage at a visceral level instead of relying on cliché’s or generalizations. Visual designers, on the other hand, are great at this, as they are skilled at talking about how the things we see translate into certain feelings and emotions, and how visual elements relate to brand perception.

experience workshop
Facilitating an experience workshop with images makes it easier for participants to articulate what visual approaches feel appropriate and inspiring. A visual designer is skilled at using this input to shape a visual strategy.

Even for companies with a well-defined brand and digital branding assets, it’s vital that the product team has a good understanding of what the brand means in the context of the product or service you are designing. This isn’t just about proper logo use and the corporate font. It’s about knowing how your company wants users to feel when they are using your brand, and about how your users want to feel while using them. Understand that intersection, and you have gold.

Look at things differently during field research

During design field research activities, a visual designer can focus on things like the visual look of the physical environment in which people use the product or service we are investigating. For example, in a medical setting, the visual designer may pay special attention to the signage and décor within a hospital. We wouldn’t mimic this in an interface, but getting a feel for the environment can give us clues as to what kind of visual styles may fit—or not fit—within that setting.

visual design research
Jayson, a visual designer at Cooper, gets to experience user research firsthand at a doctor’s office.

I recently worked with Jayson McCauliff, a visual designer, on a product for a large technology manufacturer. The product’s users were internal, so Jayson took photos of lobbies, wall art, the small in-house museum, and even the cafeteria. The effort was worth the funny looks he got, as the images later helped give him inspirations for some subtle background textures that made a direct appearance in the interface. (See more about how visual designers work at Cooper)

Early design thinking should include visual language explorations

While the interaction designers begin a design solution phase by exploring key interactions and high-level workflows, the visual designer can explore high-level visual style approaches. Because stakeholders may not be used to or comfortable talking about aesthetic and brand, having someone who understands visual design but can communicate about the effects that color, shape, white space, etc. have on users and brand are vital to making sure that everyone is aligned. It takes skill to talk about style concepts without having the conversation degrade into an argument about the specific shade of blue in a style study, so it’s important to have someone who is proficient in facilitating these discussions and in creating artifacts that solicit the right kind of feedback.

visual studies
Visual language studies keep initial visual strategy conversations focused.

Defining and building a winning product includes attention to the aesthetic and overall experience

Last, visual design isn’t just about producing beautiful visual assets for the development team. It’s also about creating a coherent product or service in the first place. A visual designer brings a unique perspective to problem solving that augments the other design team members. We find that having the visual designer involved early in design exploration activities makes our design concepts better and more well-rounded. When we are fleshing out the design framework, early and consistent involvement from the visual designer ensures that the interaction design isn’t getting too crowded, and that the overall experience is achieving the experience strategy we defined early in the project.

During detailed design activities and implementation, the visual designer needs to be able to react quickly and fluidly as the design and implementation iterate and get refined. If the visual designer has been involved with the project from day one, it’s easy for her to work in an agile way while still maintaining the original spirit and intent of the design, and she’ll be able to make good decisions and recommend improvements because of that greater understanding.

As you plan your next redesign effort, make sure that a strong visual designer is part of the team from day one. You’ll not only gain efficiencies when it’s crunch time during implementation, you’ll gain a valuable strategic partner and an overall better experience.

Sign up for the visual design course

Learn more about the role of visual design, experience attributes, experience workshops, and effectively presenting visual design to stakeholders in Cooper’s Visual Interface Design course on February 6 – 7.

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