Alan Cooper: «It’s all us» – Summary from UXLondon

So, UX London was kicked off by having Alan Cooper telling us all how much better the world would be if we, the interaction designers, would be in charge. His main focus was how our work processes today have very little in common with more traditional, industrial ways of working and managing work. He then argued that agile software development and interaction design is, well, a ying yang thing – better together.In the post-industrial world, we need to be effective – not efficient. Cooper is going to post a bibliography at the Cooper blog later.

Here my summary of what Cooper said (with my comments in parenthesis!):

Wondering who I am? I’m an interaction designer working at NetLife Research. I’m @idaAa on Twitter, I also have a Twitter-account with links in English, called @idaAaLinks.

Cooper was a «touring hippie with a backpack» in London in 1972, working as a carpenter…

I was a craftsman, a practitioner, I worked with wood, now I work with bits..
I want to talk about how the world is changing, and how we change the world.

Were we are today

I believe we are at an inflection point, in the evolution of our commercial organisations. We’re going to more satisfying ways of working. Most practitioners have experienced poorly managed software projects.. For years there was nothing we could do but accept our faith. But things are finally starting to change.

Even the most hard-headed old school managers can see that Steve Jobs and Apple is making money, and they want to make money too. Every vendor has a silver bullet to sell you in terms of managing the project, but there is no silver bullet.

But interaction design has become an essential part of the process. Agile development has created a great opportunity to make interaction design effective.

The problem

Hundred years ago, the key to profit was efficiency. It’s all about the reduction of time, effort or cost. But one key method they used was factoring out redundant efforts. By factoring out decision-making from the factory floor, they could have less skilled workers on the factory floor, and they saved a lot of money on staff. Just a few white-collar executives could support at lot more blue-collar workers. This style of management became known as command and control.

The twin notions of aggressive cost reduction and factoring out decision-making, these twin ideas is deep in the gene of business people. But it doesn’t work anymore. In our digital world we’re moving bits, not atoms. Unlike atoms, there’s unlimited bits.

Cutting costs can only hurt your softwares behavior. Our products aren’t built on factory lines, and it cannot be made by low-payed, blue-collar workers. The people who design software are motivated and highly educated. It need minute by minute decision-making. Software workers are no-collar workers.

Most software failures comes from the command and control-model. So much of what we call management consists of making it difficult for us to work. It stifles innovation and creativity. They’re not stupid, they just think they’re still in a factory.The crux of the problem is that you cannot make good decision when you’re distanced from the process.

Many managers still believe they need to control, to decide, to manage. But separated from the actual work they can only guess.

Cost and price are not linked at all in the post-industrial world. Today the only road to success is to make people love the products for what they are, not for what they cost. (But, if it’s free, I guess you’re the product being sold, as they say!)

Agile thinking was revolutionary. To me, what most defines it is that it opens programming up like a flower. It makes development more transparent, when agilists lift their heads from their screen and see that they need help from interaction designers. Agile is like sensitivity training for software developers.

Cooper compares the themes from OOPSLA 2002, with topics like «C++ Idioms» and Agile 2009, with «Giving and receiving effective feedback».

It’s a real watershed in thinking.

The balanced team

To interaction designers, nothing of this is surprising. We learned early on to see the human face of the problem. We always had to collaborate with programmers.

At Cooper we’re worked for 20 years to accomplish responsible craftmanship.

In 1998 I wrote the book «The inmates are running the asylum». The book was explicitly aimed at the tech-savvy businessmen, but the most people who read it were practitioners. The inmates are getting far better at running the asylum than any outside managers.

In january 2010, at Cooper, both groups, designers and developers both complained, «You don’t appreciate my skills and the importance of my competence!». Then a remarkable thing happened, the ice broke. (But how did they do it?)

This was the origin of the balanced team, with people from agile development and interaction design. The idea of the unified team is the core idea of our work. IT is not UX shoehorned into agile development, and not, making developers learn design.

Neither camp is converting with the other, but they are naturally symbiotic, each helps the other be more effective. (But how did they do it? That’s what I wanna know!) This integrated balanced team is very effective.

Efficiency vs effectiveness

Management guru Peter Drucker asserts that a company can be very efficient all the way to bankruptcy, but in the post-industrial age the product can’t be cheaper, it has to be better. The company has to be more effective.

When you’re working with bits, it’s easy to make stuff cheap. But it’s not easy to make it good. Yesterdays managers focused on the bottom line, reducing costs. Todays managers has to focus on the top line, increasing income.

The programmers need the freedom to choose their tools, and designers need the freedom to communicate with users and change the design. In particular, they need to be able to make decisions throughout the process, without blame.

Desicions need to be made, but it’s now made by the same people who make the work.

It’s all us. It’s no us and them. Just us. I finally grasped what the unified team really was, it need to have autonomy.

Critics of the balanced team will say that it’s less efficient and that it will make bad decisions. The answer is YES!, they will. But it doesn’t matter. In order to innovate, you need to detect and correct your problems as early as possible.

It’s far more important to end up with the right decisions – it is far more important than the time and money spent to arrive at this decision. The amount of money you put into making great things aren’t that important any more. If you make right decisions, you don’t waste money on being wrong.

What a waste to do something efficient, that is not worth doing!

What motivates people?

Understanding people is equally important to understanding technology.

Cooper refers to Daniel Pink, check out the video here:

There are three factors that lead to better performance and personal satisfaction, are

  • autonomy
  • mastery
  • purpose

Open source is autonomy in action, it shows how motivating self-direct is. The programmers sole satisfaction is to decide to build it by yourself. It also shows the problem of true autonomy, because nobody is in charge. Open source has successes and failures.

Mastery is about the feeling of getting good. While the player at the soccer team wants to get best, the coach will but each player where their strengths and weaknesses will work best.

Purpose is about people wanting a good reason to work hard. They want something more than reaching an arbitrary ship date. It has to be something that sparks their imagination, and will work for the whole team. It has to be communicated.

Expect of what you inspect. It’s better to not measure anything, than to measure the wrong thing. People will change their behavior accordingly, and every measure can be gamed. What you should measure is business value.

We, the software practitioners, are taking central stage. As we assume the role of decisions makers, our role becomes more important, yet more difficult. Maybe we are the inmates running the asylum, but we have proven that we do a great job with it.

Wondering who I am? I’m an interaction designer working at NetLife Research. I’m @idaAa on Twitter, I also have a Twitter-account with links in English, called @idaAaLinks.

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