Cooper’s Interaction Design Challenge 

UX for the 1850's telephone 


A few weeks ago, a co-worker suggested that I check out Cooper— a design and strategy firm based in San Francisco— and try out one of their design challenges. Cooper divides interaction designers (IxD) into two types: IxD generators and IxD synthesizers. I decided to take on the synthesis challenge. According to Cooper

“the IxD synthesis role is responsible for ensuring that the design is coherent, cohesive, and satisfies user needs and goals”.

Going deep, understanding the nuances of a problem and then being able to develop the big-picture strategy is crucial in fulfilling a user’s goals and delighting them in ways they hadn’t anticipated. I was excited to give the challenge a try.

The IxD Synthesis Challenge

Cooper looks for the ability to:

  • Give clear, concise explanations
  • Have an understanding of your audience
  • Have an ability to synthesize and prioritize information
  • Effectively combine words, images, diagrams, and whatever else is needed to convey information.

The Challenge

AT&T has sent you back in time to the year 1850 to help the company create a telephone service in the United States. Marketers are already at work selling the virtues of telephone communication; your job is to explain to ordinary citizens of 1850 how to use this revolutionary technology by developing the printed materials to be delivered with each telephone.
You can assume AT&T has issued the customer a phone number and installed a telephone. As is true today, dialing “0” will connect the customer to an operator. Keep in mind telegraphs have been in common use for about five years, but people have never before seen or heard of a telephone. What do they need to know to be able to understand, use, and desire this strange new device?

The challenge should take no longer than 1 hour.

My Process

Understand the context

Before jumping in, pen-a-blazing, it was important to me to take a step back and understand the context of the challenge. For this particular problem, this meant doing my research on the history surrounding 1850s America and quickly understanding cultural attitudes, major historical events, and technological innovations of the time. I took to Google to help paint a picture of the environment I was about to engage.

Context mapping: initial findings

Map User Phases

Next, I sketched out a timeline arc of how users should be introduced to the product — specifically how users would move from understanding, to using, to desiring the telephone. By mapping out a timeline, I was able to break down the problem into smaller units and examine each customer phase closely while still having a clear, big picture view.

I did a fast brainstorm to get all my initial thoughts on to the page and after, moved on to build out the each phase of a customer journey — understanding, using, and desiring the product.

User arc — Understand, Use, Desire

Part 1: Allow the User to Understand

At this initial stage, I needed to put the product into context so potential users could better understand it. Because people naturally make comparisons, I immediately looked to compare the telephone with the telegraph, the prominent product for instant communication at the time.

I drew a quick sketch of a telegraph and a 1850s telephone to compare the products aesthetically, structurally and from a usability perspective. It was clear from putting the telegraph and telephone side by side that the telegraph was complicated. There were many steps involved in use and one would have to become familiar with morse code, virtually another language. On the other hand, the telephone was simple, involving only two steps: speaking and listening. It relied on our innate ability to verbally communicate and also had a natural feel.

To further compare, I mapped out the telegraph and telephone on spectrums using words that I associated with the products. “Complicated” → “Simple”, “Coded” → “Straight forward”, and “Foreign language” → “Your language”. As noted, it became clear that the telephone had characteristics that modeled the ways in which people communicate in person and was simple enough to not be intimidating to first time users. I wanted to emphasize these points when promoting the telephone.

Highlighted in yellow

Part 2: Showcase the Usability

Next, I needed to show users how the telephone worked and by doing so, highlight the phone’s best characteristics. I sketched out a larger picture of a 1850's telephone and mapped out the process of using the phone from beginning to end. By drawing out a picture and mapping the steps, I could better understand the usability factors involved and gain a clearer user perspective. Sketching out the steps would also be important when visually communicating to potential users how easy the telephone was to use. By showing the user how the product functioned, I was able to build further familiarity and trust with the product and highlight the telephone’s qualities — simple, elegant, natural and usable.

Highlighted in yellow

Part 3: Create Meaning

The final aspect in promoting the telephone to potential users was to instill a sense of desire for the product. To do so, I thought it was essential to build the experience of the telephone around something meaningful.

I decided to first map out a user’s journey — a story:

Kathleen’s story: (1) Kathleen from Larchmont, NY has a sister that just moved to Savannah, GA with her husband. (2) The train makes it easier for trips but Kathleen only visits once a year! (3) Kathleen buys a telephone and calls her sister every sunday to catch up. It becomes a ritual. (4) No instructions needed! Kathleen simply speaks and listens. (5) Kathleen’s [calls her] sister [and] tells her she’s pregnant! Kathleen can feel her sister’s excitement and joy and can share in that moment of happiness.

Kathleen’s journey

By telling this story, I wanted to communicate how the telephone could be a tool necessary in creating a meaningful moment. Without the telephone, Kathleen would not have been able to share in that special moment with her sister. By imagining this scenario, I intended to build an emotional connection to the product and create an overall greater sense of desire for the telephone.

To round out this section, I looked to my notes throughout the design process to create an appealing list of characteristics to highlight to a our potential users.

  • Modern — Another great technology of the industrial revolution
  • Trustworthy — Hearing (feeling) the voice of a loved one
  • Intimate — Private and personal
  • Exclusive — Symbol of class
Key desirables
“Talking to someone far away as though they were in the room with you.”

Part 4: Summarize & Expand

Finally, in making printed materials to share with future users, I needed to build a clear and succinct message that could lead into presenting parts 1, 2, & 3.. From my design process I distilled the issues down to four key persuasion points (Instant, Natural, Modern, and Trustworthy). From there, I sketched out some simple-to-understand pictures and further explainations.

Easy-to-read summary


The challenge forced me to think quickly and decisively about how I was going to present the telephone to a person of the 1850s. It was important to keep the user in mind throughout the process and develop a strategy formulated around the specific context — without first understanding my audience I wouldn’t be able to reach them. It was also important to me to use of aspects psychology. Creating beneficial comparisons, fostering trust, telling a story, promoting the product as a tool for meaningful experiences, and visually mapping out the product was key. If I was granted more time, I think the next step would be to focus on creating an appealing, user-focused design and presentation of the product’s printed materials.