The industrial age is over. Manufacturing, the primary economic driver of the past 175 years, no longer dominates. While manufacturing is bigger than ever, it has lost its leadership to digital technology, and software now dominates our economy. We have moved from atoms to bits. We are now in the postindustrial age.
More and more products have software in them. My stove has a microchip in it to manage the lights, fan, and oven temperature. When the deliveryman has me sign for a package, it’s on a computer, not a pad of paper. When I shop for a car, I am really shopping for a navigation system.
More and more businesses are utterly dependent on software, and not just the obvious ones like Amazon.com and Microsoft. Thousands of companies of all sizes that provide products and services across the spectrum of commerce use software in every facet of their operations, management, planning, and sales. The back-office systems that run big companies are all software systems. Hiring and human resource management, investment and arbitrage, purchasing and supply chain management, point-of-sale, operations, and decision support are all pure software systems these days. And the Web dominates all sales and marketing. Live humans are no longer the front line of businesses. Software plays that role instead. Vendors, customers, colleagues, and employees all communicate with companies via software or software-mediated paths.
The organizational structures and management techniques that have worked so well in the past for manufacturing-based companies are failing us today in the postindustrial age. They fail because they focus on the transformation and movement of things made out of atoms. There are only finite amounts of desirable atoms and it takes lots of energy to transform and transport them. Software—made out of bits, not atoms—is qualitatively different. There is an infinite quantity of bits and virtually no energy is needed to transform, transport, or even replicate them.
The people who make software are different as well. The average computer programmer and the average assembly line worker are qualitatively different in their aptitude, attitude, training, language, tools, and value systems. The most effective ways of supervising, tracking, and managing programmers are dramatically different from those used so successfully with blue-collar workers of an earlier age. Getting programmers to do what is best for the company requires skills unknown to the industrial-age executive.
Reducing the cost of manufacturing was the essential contribution of industrialization. Thus the best and brightest minds of an earlier age applied themselves to reducing the amount of money spent creating products. In the postindustrial age, the costs of raw materials, product assembly, and shipping are equally low for all players. The only significant leverage to lower manufacturing costs comes through automation, planning, and business intelligence: that is, software. In other words, instead of saving a dollar on the construction of each widget, you save a million dollars by making the precisely needed quantity of the most desirable product.
Once a software program has been successfully written, it can be reproduced an unlimited number of times for virtually nothing. There is little benefit in reducing the cost of writing it. Reducing the amount one spends on software construction usually means compromising the quality, so the primary business equation of the industrial age is reversed today. The best and brightest minds of today apply themselves to increasing the effectiveness of software and the quality of its behavior. Keep in mind that all modern financial accounting systems focus on tracking manufacturing costs and no longer accurately represent the state of our software-dominated businesses. Making executive decisions on these erroneous numbers causes significant waste of time, money, and opportunity.
It’s no wonder that companies struggle with software. Very capable executives find that their intentions are subtly but significantly altered somewhere along the path from conception to release. What appeared to be a sound plan turns out to be inadequate for shepherding the software construction process. It’s time to let go of obsolete industrial-age management methods and adopt interaction design as the primary tool for designing and managing software construction.
Since About Face was first published in 1995, the practice of interaction design has grown and matured enormously. Dominated for so long by simple ex post facto, trial-and-error methods, interaction design—along with its many siblings and variants—has matured into a clear, dependable, effective tool for determining what behavior will succeed. The invention and development of personas, the refinement of written behavioral blueprints, and the entire practice of Goal-Directed® Design, have made high-quality software behavior achievable by any organization with the will to create it.
What’s more, interaction design has emerged as an incredibly powerful software construction management tool. Because it is a description of the software as it will be when it is finally written, it acts as a blueprint, not only helping programmers know what to build but also helping managers measure the progress of the programmers.
Interaction design has also shown its power as a marketing tool, communicating with great clarity and specificity about exactly who will be using the product and why. Getting to the root of customer motivations is manna for marketers, and the qualitative research and analysis aspects of Goal-Directed Design provide significant market insight.
Especially since the Web revolution—when tossing common sense overboard seemed to be the path to instant riches—I’ve heard many intelligent people who really should know better say, “It is simply not possible to know what the user wants!” While this assertion certainly absolves them of not, in fact, knowing what the user wants, it is boldly, obviously, incredibly false. At my company, Cooper, clients bring our designers into the complex worlds of finance, health care, pharmaceuticals, human resources, programming tools, museums, consumer credit, and any number of disparate fields. Our teams, none of whom have any training in—or typically even any exposure to—the particular subject matter at hand, routinely become sufficiently expert in only a few weeks to astonish our clients. We can do this because our point of departure is relentlessly human-centered, rather than technology-centered.
Interaction design is a tool for “Knowing what the user wants.” Armed with that knowledge, you can create better, more successful, bit-empowered products, and you can sell them for more money. What’s more, you will reach your market with a loyalty-inducing, better solution. Time and time again we have seen feature-loaded products early to market get trounced by later entries whose behavior has been better thought out. Imagine getting that thinking done before the first release ever has a chance to commit you to a nonoptimal strategy.
Nothing succeeds like success, and the success of the practical application of the principles and methods put forth in this book—and others like it—are clearly demonstrating that software isn’t really as soft as many people first thought, and that thorough user research and detailed planning are more necessary than ever in the postindustrial age.
If you are committed to improving the world by improving the behavior of digital products and services, then I welcome you to the world of About Face.
Excerpted from About Face 3
By Alan Cooper, Robert Reimann, and David Cronin
Copyright © 2007 Alan Cooper
Published by Wiley Publishing, Inc.
Alan Cooper is the co-founder of Cooper and a pioneer of the modern computing era. He created the programming language Visual Basic and wrote industry-standard books on design practice like “About Face.”