The Year Ahead
In September 2015, Cooper, the San Francisco interaction design consulting firm my wife, Sue Cooper, and I started in 1992, merged with Catalyst Group, an eminent firm in New York headed by Nick Gould and Jon Mysel. In November, all employees from both offices convened in California for two full days of workshops, games, discussions, and some drinks and dancing. We had already been working together for a few months, but this was our chance to really get to know our opposite-coast counterparts. It was a great success.
As the éminence grise of the newly reinforced Cooper, it was my duty and pleasure to sound the keynote of the 50-person gathering. The state of Cooper’s development is a precise microcosm of the state of development of the entire growing community of interaction designers around the world. Thus my words to Cooper are applicable to all, and I present them below.
For more than two decades, Cooper has had a single, simple mission: to improve people’s lives by humanizing technology.
But we don’t talk about that mission much, mainly because it sounds so grandiose and idealistic. Instead, we talk about our unique culture and our special values. But while culture and values are easier to articulate, they still derive from the mission, as do the everyday manifestation of corporate goals.
But those three things, mission, values, and goals, are all tightly interleaved. Each one drives the other two in certain ways. In any company, they tend to solidify as a coherent whole, which becomes the company’s culture.
Of the three, I think values are the most important. The reason why we are melding Cooper and Catalyst together so smoothly is because our values are so similar. When you hold in common what is most important to you, the rest of the stuff falls quickly into line.
When Cooper was founded 23 years ago, we derived three clear goals from our mission:
- Make interaction design a rigorous practice.
- Make interaction design an important profession, and
- Elevate interaction design into an integral part of 21st Century business.
Everything we did was in service to those goals so, naturally, we derived our values and thus our culture from our mission.
Our goal of developing a rigorous practice demanded a culture that was collaborative and supportive while remaining critical and questioning.
Our goal of developing IxD as a profession demanded that our culture accentuate the differences between the disciplines of programming, testing, research, synthesis, generation, visual design, and management, while at the same time exploring ways for these disciplines to cooperate.
Our goal of attaining a seat at the table of business leadership demanded that our values be supportive, egalitarian, and demanding.
The world in 2015 is very different from 1992. We have achieved all of our original goals. IxD — or UX — is a well-established and rigorous practice taught at top-tier academies, it has become an important and respected profession, well represented at world-class companies. And we occupy our seat at the table of business leaders, with a growing number of Chief Design Officers. It’s not inappropriate for us to pause, pat ourselves on the back, and bask in the warm glow of a job well done.
Yes, our mission of improving lives by humanizing technology is the same today as it ever was. However, with the dramatically changed — dramatically improved — cultural and technical landscape, today we have our choice of new goals.
Some of our goals are obvious, like keeping our tools sharp and our ethical standards high. But as we grow, so do our ambitions and our capabilities. We need to ask ourselves, “What challenges do we want to tackle next?”
Towards this end, I ask you to ponder these questions:
What challenges are worthy of our attention?
What will attract the best and the brightest?
What goals are so ambitious that I get a little scared imagining them?
Whatever direction we choose to go, we will remain true to our values. To do otherwise would undermine the social fabric of our company and our profession. To be certain that everyone is clear about what those values are, I want to reiterate them concisely and memorably. Our values can be expressed as four basic ideas: Professionals, Practice, People, and Patrons. The Four Ps.
Above all, we respect the professionals who work at Cooper.
Our employees are the beating heart of our business. We want them to succeed as humans and teammates as well as practitioners. Everyone at Cooper deserves support, recognition, advancement, honesty, and respect.
We are committed to furthering the practice of UX.
We invest time and thought into developing our craft, bringing our rigor and expertise to all facets of our discipline. We don’t let artificial distinctions between practices like UX, IxD, Service Design, or Visual Design deter us from using all of our tools as necessary.
We recognize that our most important audience is the people who use the products we design.
There are many competing voices in the modern business and the user’s voice is the most under-represented. It is our job to humanize the user and assure that his or her goals are clearly articulated and respected. We understand that if the user achieves their goals, the company will achieve theirs.
We know that our true value will only manifest itself through the will of our patrons, the clients who hire us. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what we know, it matters what our client knows, and the action that knowledge compels. It’s our job to gently but firmly blaze a new trail for them. Occasionally our work can be pedantic, but more often than not it allows us to be fearless warriors, speaking truth to power.
By studying the Four P values, you can better see the direction Cooper needs to go.
In order to support our professionals, we need to be a successful company. To give our people a career growth path, we need to be a large enough company. To give them challenging work, we need to have more challenging clients and projects.
In order to develop our practice, we need to seek out opportunities that expand our capabilities. We need to find and tackle unfamiliar assignments so that they can become a familiar part of our regular offerings.
In order to satisfy people, the users, we need to work with clients who are creating new interactions, in new fields, with new technologies and new visions of interactivity.
In order to support our patrons, we need to seek out clients who value the cutting edge of our practice and be skeptical of those clients who see us merely as helping hands performing a known task. We want a reputation as the company that assures success for those who engage and empower us.
As a leader in design — a Cooperista — I urge you to imagine a set of goals worthy of our efforts; a set of goals ambitious enough to elicit a frisson of doubt, a frisson we shared many years ago when the notion of creating an entire profession out of nothing seemed impossibly over-reaching. We are going to accomplish in the next twenty years exponentially more than we accomplished in the last twenty. So what do you want to look back on in the year 2035 and say, “Wow! We did that!”
Because designers represent the people affected by technology-driven business, we find ourselves increasingly acting as the primary advocate for ethical behavior in commerce. Our challenge extends well beyond these two days. The consequences of our choices now may well be critical to every aspect of social, environmental, and business life of the 21st century. Designers are inheriting the mantle of the conscience of business, and we must never forget that our primary responsibility is to be good ancestors; to leave a better world behind for our children and their children.