One lesson we’ve learned over the past several years here at Cooper is that on the vast majority of our projects, intimate client collaboration is a critical ingredient for success. This is a lesson that we have sometimes learned the hard way; collaboration can be messy, unpredictable and has often forced us to compromise what we thought was a supremely clear and elegant vision. Despite these growing pains, we’ve learned to embrace the unpredictability and compromise; through well-managed client collaboration, our designs are stronger and are more likely to serve our clients’ needs and satisfy the goals of end users.
There’s a dirty little secret that nobody in the design community wants you to know: it’s actually possible to build and ship a software product…without designing it first! There. I said it. Now my time is short; even as I type, assassins with square-toed shoes and goatees are stalking my whereabouts.
But just because you can construct software products without designing them first, why on earth would anybody want to?
The analogies are endless: you wouldn’t point a construction crew to an open lot and tell them to build a structure without giving them blueprints, would you? You wouldn’t ask a doctor to re-set a broken bone without looking at an x-ray; you wouldn’t storm the beaches of Normandy without a battle strategy and a good map; you wouldn’t even don your shoes before putting on your socks.
Executives chuckle warmly at these analogies, and agree wholeheartedly that yes, it’s always best to design products—the things that their companies sell for money—before building them and putting them in the hands of customers. Yet even though business decision-makers of all stripes acknowledge the merits of design, it’s the designers and usability professionals who are the first to get jettisoned from a project plan when the going gets rough.
If you work for a large company, or have one as a client, you’ve probably heard about Six Sigma. Many companies report great success using Six Sigma initiatives to improve the quality of their products and services, measured by increased customer satisfaction and millions of dollars saved.
At the core, Six Sigma and Goal-Directed design share some of the same values and provide tools to solve some of the same problems. Six Sigma seeks to understand and quantify the functions that matter most to users and provide improvements in those most leveraged areas. Goal-Directed design seeks to delight users and increase loyalty by creating products that are powerful and pleasurable to use. Six Sigma identifies and tracks faults "critical to quality" (CTQs). Goal-Directed design uses personas and goals to define and communicate interaction design decisions.
Most people think of Goal-Directed Design techniques as focused on product design, but they work equally well for services. A service is comprised of the various "touchpoints" between a customer and a business. Touchpoints include public-facing systems such as web sites and web-enabled software, but can include other channels as well, such as brick-and-mortar stores, points of sale, interactive voice response systems, email and postal mail, too.
A service model best fits offerings that are intangible, distributed in space, or play out over a length of time, especially on a routine basis. Some obvious examples include: electricity, hotels, mobile phone service, or even a government. The touchpoints you design as part of your service are critical to the user’s understanding of your brand. Increasingly, many touchpoints are interactive systems rather than human contact, so paying careful attention to the design of these things from the user’s goals is vital.
We have a saying around the office: "If you can’t explain the design, it must not be right yet." It’s a reminder to designers to not get so caught up in idea generation and specifying details that we lose sight of creating a coherent big picture for the design.
We need to exercise the ideas we generate by articulating them coherently; chances are high that if we can’t describe our "great idea" with clarity, it’s not such a great idea, after all. It’s amazing how many design ideas seem just dandy on the whiteboard, then deflate like a punctured balloon when poked at with the sharp pencil of design communication.
One piece of advice I have received in my first year
here at Cooper is to avoid referring to personas as
creations. Of course they are, and everyone knows it,
but they work better if we refer to them as if they
were real people in the world. For example, the conversation
got off track a bit in one client presentation when
I said, "We gave Tracy two kids, with one heading
off to college…" The discussion went from
being about the personas and the design problem to being
about why we gave Tracy two kids, and what tweaks might
be made to better fit the persona to the client’s expectations.
Had I instead said something like "Tracy has two
children, the older of whom is about to head to college,"
the conversation likely would have remained on track.
Why is that the case?
I don’t have to tell you that at Cooper, we love personas—how
could we not?—and we’re glad to see continued excitement
about them. That said, although personas are essential
design tools, we think some people may be losing sight
of the fact that they’re just tools, and tools with
a specific purpose, at that. Lately, we’ve been seeing
a lot of gold-plated hammers—unnecessarily elaborate
communication about personas—and some fundamental misunderstandings
about the relationships among research, personas, and
For the past several months, I’ve been working with
Alan Cooper and Robert Reimann on the latest version
of About Face, Alan’s classic book on interface
and interaction design. One of the major objectives
with this new third edition has been to bring the book
up to date with current conversations about the design
of interactive products, which has been a great excuse
for me to dig into the growing body of literature on
In particular, the last year saw the publication of
three very worthwhile tomes written explicitly on the
subject of interaction design. (Those of you who have
been in the field for a while probably share my shock
to have such a wealth of discourse.) Despite the almost
comic similarity in their titles, the three books each
cover different ground but are really quite complementary.
These three books, along with Mullet and Sano’s Designing
Visual Interfaces and About Face (naturally)
would be a fantastic curriculum for someone interested
in interaction design.
An email from on high hits your inbox: the company
is kicking off an initiative to "radically improve"
the effectiveness and efficiency of its nationwide sales
Nothing new here, you think. This sort of thing sweeps
over the land every few years, like locusts.
But as you drag the message into your Deleted folder,
something new catches the eye. Your design team is being
asked to carry out the first step of the initiative:
conducting a research project to "gather requirements"
for how to make the organization more effective.
Aside from the fact that requirements are defined and
not "gathered" (one pictures wine bottles
hanging from grapevines), it’s surprisingly level-headed
to turn to interaction designers to examine organizational
needs and propose solutions. Most of the time, it’s
business analysts and technology specialists who are
tapped for these assignments. Analysts collect information
about what makes the business tick; technologists, meanwhile,
build and/or choose tools that work within a given infrastructure.
But while the work of analysts and technologists is
necessary, it is not sufficient. That’s because they
are rarely trained (much less asked) to describe usage
contexts, identify goals, or design tools that satisfy
people while also meeting the objectives of organizations.
The result? Too often it’s a new flavor of the same
old thing, just more expensive this time around.
Goal-Directed Design necessarily involves first-hand research with real-world users. Whether these interviews last 30 minutes or two hours, the first few minutes of discussion are vital to establishing rapport with your participant.
Outside of celebrities and politicians, few people are practiced at giving interviews. And while participants are almost always willing to help as best as they can, there may be some unspoken questions troubling them before an interview begins. This article offers a list of common topics that proactively address these questions and make participants feel at ease.
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