Amber Alert: The Tragedy of Bad Design

If you live in California or New York and you own a cell phone, you probably recently experienced the new Amber Alert capabilities. And by “capabilities,” I mean “the government’s newfound ability to disturb your sleep with non-actionable information.”

In California, the alert that set all this ablaze was in reference to a man, James Lee DiMaggio, who may or may not have killed his friend and her son, burned his house down with them in it, and fled with her daughter. Not that you would have known that from the Amber Alert: “Boulevard, CA AMBER Alert UPDATE: LIC/6WCU986 (CA) Blue Nissan Versa 4 door.” Certainly, Twitter has been all a-buzz about the alerts, and there are dozens of articles on the subject (my personal favorite headline: “Shaquille O’Neal: Yeah I Got That Amber Alert”).

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Designer’s Toolkit: Road Testing Prototype Tools

We’ve all been there: you’ve got a few days to throw together a prototype. For expedience sake, you go to one of your large, well known tools to get the job done. The files quickly become bloated and crash—hours of hard work lost. There’s got to be a way to create prototypes at a similar level of fidelity with a lighter weight tool.

After test driving some alternative prototyping tools I discovered that there are indeed other good options. Here is an overview of what I found, followed by assessments of each tool, with hopes it will help fellow designers in the prototyping trenches.

Choosing the tools

After researching existing prototyping tools, I narrowed a long list of about 40 to a small set of 10 that looked the most interesting. Some factors that influenced which tools I selected include:

  • Hearing about the tool from fellow Cooperistas or other colleagues.
  • The popularity of the tool based on what I read in other blogs.
  • Whether it looked cool or exciting from my first impression of the design and features.

This is not a comprehensive set of tools, but includes the ones that I was interested in checking out.

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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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Cooper wins 2013 Interaction Award

2013InteractionAwards_BestInCategoryOptimizing

We are proud to announce that our work with Practice Fusion’s EMR iPad app has been announced as 2013 Interaction Award winner in optimizing from the Interaction Design Association. The app was selected by an international jury and recognized for it’s ability to make daily activities more efficient. Here’s a look at what this app can do.

Congratulations to the Practice Fusion team and the Cooper team of Stefan, Andreas, Jayson, Elisha, Jenea, Doug, and Nick, and a big thank you to Jim.

Update:If you like this app, than let your voice be heard! Vote for this app to win the Interaction13 People’s Choice Award

Related Reading

What is User Experience Design?

This is the first post in a series of interviews exploring some of the fundamental questions in our field, like what user experience design (UX) is and why it matters to you. In this article, I’ve interviewed Alan Cooper, founder and President of Cooper and Chris Noessel Managing Director at Cooper and co-author of “Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction”.

P1080892

How do you design a digital interaction?

Digital technology must respond in a meaningful way when a user expresses their intent. The job of a user experience designer is making this interaction feel natural and nearly invisible. As people around the world increasingly engage with digital technology on a daily basis, the need for smart UX becomes ever more apparent.

Alan says, “When a complex digital device is easy to understand and use, a UX designer has done their job.” A skilled UX designer understands the goals and mental models of users, along with the nuances of technology. He or she uses this knowledge to shape the behavior of the technology so that it all seems natural to the user, in just the way a talented author makes you forget the narrator.

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Everybody wins the design arms race

Just as the Internet powerhouses of the early 2000’s were all but forgotten, they rise with new panache. MySpace, Digg, and now AOL have undergone massive redesigns in an attempt to lure in former users, and it just might work.

Remember the race to get your favorite @gmail.com address? OMG – a GB of free storage!? Forget that hotmail email address you’ve been using since your days backpacking around Europe after college, time to switch domains. What a hassle.

Those days are over. Today, cloud storage is effectively free. The key players (Google, Amazon, Microsoft) have taken data center construction to an art form, along the way making that same infrastructure a commodity. The result: the back-end is no longer a differentiator and companies are increasingly turning to front-end innovation to make a splash.

(Source: engadget)

AOL’s new web-based email client, Alto, is an interesting new tool for managing the inbox fire hose. Among other nifty features, it analyzes your inbox and automatically categorizes your email into piles like daily deals, attachments, and social notifications – the new breed of “pseudo-spam.” Unlike the days of yore, you don’t have to go through the hassle of migrating from Gmail or Yahoo to take advantage of these new superpowers. Alto is just a new layer of svelteness on top of the old email infrastructure.

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The best interface is no interface

“Atmadm.”

Getting our work done was an alphabet soup nightmare.

“chkntfs.”

“dir.”

(Source: vintagecomputer.net)

Then, in 1984, Apple adopted Xerox PARC’s WIMP — window, icon, menu, pointer — and took us a galactic leap forward away from those horrifying command lines of DOS, and into a world of graphical user interfaces.

Apple’s Lisa. (Source: Guidebook Gallery)

We were converted. And a decade later, when we could touch the Palm Pilot instead of dragging a mouse, we were even more impressed. But today, our love for the digital interface has gotten out-of-control.

It’s become the answer to every design problem.

How do you make a better car? Slap an interface in it.

Speedometer in BMW’s Mini Cooper. (Source: BMW)

Who doesn’t want Twitter functionality inside their speedometer? (Source: CNET)

How do you make a better refrigerator? Slap an interface on it.

“Upgrade your life” with a better refrigerator door. (Source: Samsung)

Love to check my tweets when getting some water from the fridge. (Source: Samsung)

How do you make a better hotel lobby? Slap an interface in it.

(Source: IDEO)

A giant touchscreen with news and weather is exactly what’s missing from my hotel stay. (Source: IDEO)

Creative minds in technology should focus on solving problems. Not just make interfaces.

As Donald Norman said in 1990, “The real problem with the interface is that it is an interface. Interfaces get in the way. I don’t want to focus my energies on an interface. I want to focus on the job…I don’t want to think of myself as using a computer, I want to think of myself as doing my job.”

It’s time for us to move beyond screen-based thinking. Because when we think in screens, we design based upon a model that is inherently unnatural, inhumane, and has diminishing returns. It requires a great deal of talent, money and time to make these systems somewhat usable, and after all that effort, the software can sadly, only truly improve with a major overhaul.

There is a better path: No UI. A design methodology that aims to produce a radically simple technological future without digital interfaces. Following three simple principles, we can design smarter, more useful systems that make our lives better.

Principle 1: Eliminate interfaces to embrace natural processes.

Several car companies have recently created smartphone apps that allow drivers to unlock their car doors. Generally, the unlocking feature plays out like this:

  1. A driver approaches her car.
  2. Takes her smartphone out of her purse.
  3. Turns her phone on.
  4. Slides to unlock her phone.
  5. Enters her passcode into her phone.
  6. Swipes through a sea of icons, trying to find the app.
  7. Taps the desired app icon.
  8. Waits for the app to load.
  9. Looks at the app, and tries figure out (or remember) how it works.
  10. Makes a best guess about which menu item to hit to unlock doors and taps that item.
  11. Taps a button to unlock the doors.
  12. The car doors unlock.
  13. She opens her car door.

Thirteen steps later, she can enter her car.

The app forces the driver to use her phone. She has to learn a new interface. And the experience is designed around the flow of the computer, not the flow of a person.

If we eliminate the UI, we’re left with only three, natural steps:

  1. A driver approaches her car.
  2. The car doors unlock.
  3. She opens her car door.

Anything beyond these three steps should be frowned upon.

Seem crazy? Well, this was solved by Mercedes-Benz in 1999. Please watch the first 22 seconds of this incredibly smart (but rather unsexy) demonstration:

(Source: YouTube)

Thanks “Chris.”

By reframing design constraints from the resolution of the iPhone to our natural course of actions, Mercedes created an incredibly intuitive, and wonderfully elegant car entry. The car senses that the key is nearby, and the door opens without any extra work.

That’s good design thinking. After all, especially when designing around common tasks, the best interface is no interface.

Another example.

A few companies, including Google, have built smartphone apps that allow customers to pay merchants using NFC. Here’s the flow:

  1. A shopper enters a store.
  2. Orders a sandwich.
  3. Takes his smartphone out of his pocket.
  4. Turns his phone on.
  5. Slides to unlock.
  6. Enters his passcode into the phone.
  7. Swipes through a sea of icons, trying to find the Google Wallet app.
  8. Taps the desired app icon.
  9. Waits for the app to load.
  10. Looks at the app, and tries figure out (or remember) how it works.
  11. Makes a best guess about which menu item to hit to to reveal his credit cards linked to Google Wallet. In this case, “payment types.”
  12. Swipes to find the credit card his would like to use.
  13. Taps that desired credit card.
  14. Finds the NFC receiver near the cash register.
  15. Taps his smartphone to the NFC receiver to pay.
  16. Sits down and eats his sandwich.



If we eliminate the UI, we’re again left with only three, natural steps:

  1. A shopper enters a store.
  2. Orders a sandwich.
  3. Sits down and eats his sandwich.



Asking for an item to a person behind a register is a natural interaction. And that’s all it takes to pay with Auto Tab in Pay with Square. Start at 2:08:

(Source: YouTube)

Auto Tab in Pay with Square does require some UI to get started. But by using location awareness behind-the-scenes, the customer doesn’t have to deal with UI, and can simply pursue his natural course of actions.

As Jack Dorsey of Square explains above, “NFC is another thing you have to do. It’s another action you have to take. And it’s not the most human action to wave a device around another device and wait for a beep. It just doesn’t feel right.”

Principle 2: Leverage computers instead of catering to them.

No UI is about machines helping us, instead of us adapting for computers.

With UI, we are faced with counterintuitive interaction methods that are tailored to the needs of a computer. We are forced to navigate complex databases to obtain simple information. We are required to memorize countless passwords with rules like one capital letter, two numbers and a punctuation mark. And most importantly, we’re constantly pulled away from the stuff we actually want to be doing.

A Windows 2000 password requirement. (Source: Microsoft)

By embracing No UI, the design focuses on your needs. There’s no interface for the sake of interface. Instead, computers are catered to you.

Your car door unlocks when you walk up to it. Your TV turns on to the channel you want to watch. Your alarm clock sets itself, and even wakes you up at the right REM moment.

Even your car lets you know when something is wrong:

(Source: YouTube)

When we let go of screen-based thinking, we design purely to the needs of a person. Afterall, good experience design isn’t about good screens, it’s about good experiences.

Principle 3: Create a system that adapts for people.

I know, you’re great.

You’re a unique, amazingly complex individual, filled with your own interests and desires.

So building a great UI for you is hard. It takes open-minded leaders, great research, deep insights…let’s put it this way: it’s challenging.

So why are companies spending millions of dollars simply to make inherently unnatural interfaces feel somewhat natural for you? And even more puzzling, why do they continue to do so, when UI often has a diminishing rate of return?

Think back to when you first signed up for Gmail. Once you discovered innovative features like conversation view, you were hugely rewarded. But over time, the rate of returns have diminished. The interface has become stale.

Sadly, the obvious way for Google to give you another leap forward is to have its designers and engineers spend an incredible amount of time and effort to redesign. And when they do, you will be faced with the pain of learning how to interact with the new interface; some things will work better for you, and some things will be worse for you.

Alternatively, No UI systems focus on you. These systems aren’t bound by the constraints of screens, but instead are able to organically and rapidly grow to fit your needs.

For example, let’s talk about Trunk Club.

It’s a fashion startup.

They think of themselves as a service, not a software company or an app-maker. That’s an important mind set which is lost on many startups today. It means they serve people, not screens.

And I guess if we’re going to talk about Trunk Club, I’ve got to mention a few of their peers: Bombfell, Unscruff, Swag of the Month and ManPacks.

After you sign up for Trunk Club, you have an introductory conversation with a stylist. Then, they send your first trunk of clothes. What you like, you keep. What you don’t like, you send back. Based on your returns and what you keep, Trunk Club learns more and more about you, giving you better and better results each time.

Diminishing rate of return over time? Nay, increasing returns.

Without a bulky UI, it’s easier to become more and more relevant. For fashion, the best interface is no interface.

Another company focused on adapting to your needs is Nest.

When I first saw Nest, I thought they had just slapped an interface on a thermometer and called it “innovation.”

As time passes, the need to use Nest’s UI diminishes. (Source: YouTube)

But there’s something special about the Nest thermostat: it doesn’t want to have a UI.

Nest studies you. It tracks when you wake up. What temperatures you prefer over the course of the day. Nest works hard to eliminate the need for its own UI by learning about you.

Haven’t I heard this before?

The foundation for No UI has been laid by countless other members of the design community.

In 1988, Mark Weiser of Xerox PARC coined “ubiquitous computing.” In 1995, this was part of his abstract on Calm Technology:

“The impact of technology will increase ten-fold as it is imbedded in the fabric of everyday life. As technology becomes more imbedded and invisible, it calms our lives by removing annoyances while keeping us connected with what is truly important.”

In 1998, Donald Norman wrote “The Invisible Computer.” From the publisher:

“…Norman shows why the computer is so difficult to use and why this complexity is fundamental to its nature. The only answer, says Norman, is to start over again, to develop information appliances that fit people’s needs and lives.”

In 1999, Kevin Ashton gave a talk about “The Internet of Things.” His words:

“If we had computers that knew everything there was to know about things—using data they gathered without any help from us—we would be able to track and count everything, and greatly reduce waste, loss and cost.”

Today, we finally have the technology to achieve a lot of these goals.

This past year, Amber Case talked about Weiser-inspired location awareness.

There’s a lot we can achieve with some of our basic tools today.

Let’s keep talking.

Oh, there’s so much more to say:

Watch the Cooper Parlor. After this essay exploded on Twitter, Cooper hosted a No UI event with special guest, design legend Donald Norman.

Listen to “The best interface is no interface” at SXSW. Thanks for reading this essay, tweeting about it, and generously pressuring SXSW to accept this talk. Thanks to you, I will be speaking about “The best interface is no interface” at SXSW 2013.

Discuss on Branch. Join the conversation on Branch about the world of No UI.

Follow the No UI Tumblr. I’m collecting more case studies, more examples and articles about the technology that can help us eliminate the interface on Tumblr. Get inspired at nointerface.tumblr.com

Comment below. Where do you see No UI opportunities?

Related Reading

Special thanks: to everyone at Cooper and all those who have helped, particularly Stefan Klocek, Chris Noessel, Doug LeMoine and Meghan Gordon.

Corrections: the original version of this article referred to “Pay with Square” as “Pay by Square”, incorrectly stated the published date of “The Invisible Computer” and cited Adam Greenfield.

The other reason personas work: The Intentional Stance


Since Cooper invented personas, they’ve become the de facto interaction design tool across the world. Most folks know the basics of why: They embody salient user characteristics from first-hand user research in a medium that people are good at understanding, remembering, and discussing, i.e. people.


I’ve been using personas as a design, teaching, and even writing tool for over a decade now and I believe strongly that all that’s true. They do embody research. They are easy to remember and use. But I think there’s another reason they work, a psychological reason, that’s as important to understanding them: they get you to think about design problems in a fundamentally different way.

This effect is not just true for interaction designers, either. Whether you’re a developer, product owner, business strategist, or content strategist, the reason they work has to do with the way that you think about the world around you. To explain why, we need to tuck in to a little philosophical thinking. Don’t worry, it will be quick and painless.

The philosopher Daniel Dennett proposed that the way people reason about things the world around them changes based on the particular one of three stances they take toward those things.

When we adopt a physical stance, we use our basic sense of physics to predict things, such as when we wonder, “What would happen if I pour sand on a fire?”


When we adopt a design stance, we use our understanding of human intentions as they are embodied in designed objects, such as when we pick up a new tool and wonder, “How did the person who made this intend for it to be used?”


When we adopt an intentional stance, we use a different part of our brain to anticipate how an intentional agent (like a plant, animal, or person) will change their behavior in order to get what he, she, or it wants. When we predict what the tiger that’s chasing us will do when we turn to duck in a cave, we’re adopting an intentional stance.


When we design, we are trying to optimize systems towards some desired effect. This means that we’re taking one of these predictive stances about what will and won’t work, i.e., what will let our personas achieve their goals. Which stance is it? I don’t think anyone adopts the physical stance when designing. No one perceives users’ behaviors as defined by strictly physical forces. But what of the other two stances?

I believe the design stance is the default stance people take when designing, (apologies for the redundant-sounding phrasing) and it’s the wrong one. In the design stance you can change the tool to fit the task. Turn the hammer around. Pull off the metal part. Only instead of working with hammers, you’re working with your sense of users in the world. This gives rise to problems of “the elastic user” discussed in The Inmates, which is to say that we can cherry-pick whatever aspects of users suit our interests at hand. When we design this way, we serve ourselves and the systems more than we do the people who are using our stuff, and that’s a way to ensure that people do not love your product or service.

The intentional stance is the right stance for design, since it respects users’ goals as something largely fixed, and which we have to accommodate with the smartest design possible, or they will change their behavior, and go to a competitor.

Even if this were just philosophy it would make sense, but it turns out that a number of universities including Glasgow Caledonian University and MIT have done some experiments that show that in fact, we do use different parts of our brains in each stance. They’ve even captured it in functional images. It’s not just philosophy and common sense, it’s actual neuroscience. (For an academic reference, see below.)

Once you understand this “other” reason personas work, a lot of the little nuanced guidelines that I try and instill in young interaction designers and students make sense. Why don’t we want our personas to have names like “Cathy Consumer” and “Adam Analyst”? Because no one in the real world would have a name like that. It’s is clear that these are fabricated objects rather than real people. Such names get your teams into a design stance where the facts of actual users can be skewed or ignored. Rather, it’s best to choose names that could be in the real world but aren’t in and of themselves distracting or hard to pronounce. Persona names could belong to a real person, which helps encourages an intentional stance.

For similar reasons, it’s why we give personas big photos that don’t look like models. It’s why we provide some narrative background to them, including education, training, coworkers, or family as the project suggests. It’s why we avoid highlighting the data that went into them on their introductory slides. It’s why we really only mention that we created them once, and thereafter refer to them as real people. We want them to trigger the sense of living, breathing intentionality in everyone who has a responsibility for accommodating those goals. This gives us the stance that will keep user goals foremost and consistently considered while possible design decisions fare the treacherous waters of the design and development process.

This is the other reason personas just work.




  • If you’d like to read up on Gallagher and Frith’s functional imaging experiments, see
    Gallagher, Helen L., and Christopher D. Frith. “Functional Imaging of ‘theory of Mind’.” Learning Development and Resource Center. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Feb. 2003. Web. 16 July 2012.


Can doctors and computers get along?

Practice Fusion, the leading provider of health records software for medical professionals, has published a nice recap of their user conference, Connect11, where Alan Cooper spoke about the role of interaction design in health care. Among the questions answered – “what do you get when you cross a computer with a doctor’s office?”

At the 13 minute mark, Stefan Klocek presents a prototype of Practice Fusion’s new iPad app.

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You can’t save your way to innovation

What’s wrong, you might argue, with keeping costs down? Quite a bit, it turns out. If your objective is to design a product people want to use, or to invent something brand new, you must embark on a journey of creativity and innovation. That might seem like normal, every day business, but don’t make the mistake of trying to run your creative organization like a conventional one.

Business sage Peter Drucker asserted creative employees “are not labor, they are capital.” This has profound implications on the way you should manage and account for your business. As Drucker also asserted, “What is decisive in the performance of capital is not its costs, but its productivity.”

In other words, if there is something you can do to enhance the creative abilities of your people, it doesn’t really matter how much it costs, or how long it takes. If it results in a successful invention, or a compelling design, that’s what really counts.

Business people trained in industrial age thinking cut costs from force of habit. After all, expense reduction was an excellent strategy when manufacturing costs were dominant; they are easy to measure and provide instant benefits. In the post industrial age, manufacturing costs are neither dominant nor elastic, so reducing them reduces your quality without improving your desirability. Today, trying to make your product cheaper just makes it frustrating to use and unlovable without making it any cheaper to buy. It’s no longer a valid competitive strategy. Read More

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