Channels of misinformation with Alan Cooper

A transcript of Episode 155 of UX Podcast. James Royal-Lawson and Per Axbom talk with Alan Cooper about the importance of ethics in our work as digital practitioners and the huge impact our work has on the world.

Alan Cooper speaking at From Business To Buttons 2017


Alan: In order to be a designer at all, you are sympathetic. You do know. Just because you’re a good engineer, doesn’t mean you’re going to create a good product. But if you want to create a good product and if you want to take responsibility for a good product, then you need to have some more awareness of the people around you in the work you do.

James: We’re your hosts, James Royal- Lawson.

Per: And Per Axbom.

James: And this is UX Podcast coming to you from Sweden — Stockholm, Sweden. We have listeners in a hundred and sixty-seven countries, from Tanzania to Taiwan.

Per: Nice.

James: Do you like how I mentioned Tanzania?

Per: I love that. Because I didn’t even know we had listeners in Tanzania. And I —

James: There aren’t many, I can tell you. But they’re are.

Per: But I have lived in Dar es salaam, so shout out to those listeners specifically. Today, we’re talking to none other than Alan Cooper, father of visual basic, founder of Cooper, author of “ About Face”, “The Inmates are Running the Asylum.” And so well and he’s also speaking at From Business to Buttons here in Stockholm on April 27. And I would mention our UX Podcast coupon code, but that event actually is sold out. So, make sure you subscribe to UX Podcast and hear our chats with some of the speakers that we will be recording on the day.

James: It’s also time, before we talk to Alan first to talk about and mention our twenty-seventeen listener survey which you can find at It’s only going to take you a couple of minutes, but it’s quite a big help for us to learn a little bit about well, what we’re doing right and what we can do better. So, go to


Per: Well the thing is, I mean it’s been a year and we — I know you are really nervous about the talk when you’re about to give it last year and it went really well. And then you — Since then you’ve given the talk across the world in lots, at lots of different conferences. So sort of wondering what — How is this past year gone for you? How is it perhaps changed you and how you look at how designers are tackling this idea of ethics and design?

Alan: I have indeed given a talk multiple times. It’s been very happily received at each time. And so what I’m realizing is that the world of design is hungry for an encouragement and also I think guidance. Guidance I think is harder than encouragement because the problem of ethics is such a hairball of trouble. And you can see in the political situation around the world that democracy is deteriorating. The mechanisms of its deterioration are in ways tools that we technical practitioners have created. We’re all building this cool stuff that makes money for our companies.

But then we realized that by making all this money for our companies, we’re exacerbating inequality and gross inequality is phrase at the fabric of democracy. I mean there are people out there who are writing software for imprisoning people. It’s, the bulk of the problem is that evils in our world today are not proximate to the mechanisms that support the evils of the world. The storm troopers who abuse people are just following orders. And the authority figures that they’re following are just following orders and it’s several removes before you find the work that we do. I used to say I’m not interested in politics. And frankly, I’m not. I’m not interested in politics, I’m not interested in taking out the garbage. But if you don’t take out the garbage, then your living situation turns to shit. So, you have to take out the garbage. And so you have to be committed to politics.

James: So, I don’t know if we’re — I mean if we’re across the board really, really good it. I mean, it varies a lot of from country to country. But you’re right in the sense that it’s like an engine, isn’t it? You’ve got to put oil in at some point. I mean, if you don’t put the oil in, eventually it kind of gnaws itself to death and seizes up. That’s kind of the same thing with democracy.

Alan: And the thing about it is that one is that — I mean, well, democracy is a mechanism for delegation. At a certain level, everybody has to participate. You can’t delegate your delegation. You — And so, it really is a kind of a populous low level thing that you have to take an interest in who’s running. And you have to support your candidates and you have to be an activist at a local level. The other thing is that I continually look at the problems in our world. I set out to make a list the other day with the problems in our world. I mean, I’m talking to you about major problems. Like oppression of other colored people. And — You know, like after a couple of pages you go, “Oh, shit.” and the thing is, is that each one of them has its own solution.

None of the solutions are effective. Because all of the solutions are undermined, are short circuited by inequality namely — And the United States has for profit prisons, and so it turns out that we love the war on drugs. The war on drugs is the most horrendous and awful thing that mankind has ever created. And, but it makes a lot of money for people. And things like for profit prisons is one of those mechanisms in making money. So, you can’t attack for profit prisons and say, “Oh, we allot those. We want the government to run the prisons. Even if you could create, somehow build grassroots interests in politically putting leverage on people to change that individuals and corporations with vast economic resources, just step in by politicians and change the — They just short circuit any work that the grass roots efforts can accomplish.

And that’s the problem, is there’s this sort of like this universal solvent that’s dissolving democracy. And what it is, is its individuals and companies with outrageously large bank accounts. It’s — It comes down to this business of, will right shitty software if I pay you twice what that guy pays. Well you — People kind of go, “Well, yeah. I’ll do that because I’m not really hurting anybody and I’m a decent person.” You can self justify, then you say, “Well, I’ll pay you four times that if you’ll click algorithms in here and they don’t tell the people that we’re lying and cheating and stealing.” And then, “Well, you know jeez I’m getting a lot of these money” and it’s like, okay for this much money will you kill that person?”

James: I guess it’s also the same thing with when we have a similar thing where you

join a software development or you join a team and they’re already producing something, or there’s someone else who has made the backlog. I mean I’m just saying, “Oh, I’m just designing interface. I didn’t decide we’re going to do it.” Or “I’m just quoting you. I didn’t decide we’re going to do it.” And I think was it Mike Monteiro that wrote the other week about how your neighbor doing something isn’t a good excuse.

Alan: Right. And this is part of the responsibilities of representative democracy. Is you have to take individual action. And you have to be doing it constantly. You don’t have to do it really hard. You don’t have to be an activist out on the protest lines necessarily. But you need to educate yourself. You need to vote and you need to be communicating with your local representatives. I mean, what I’m realizing is that if you’re not emailing or calling your congressional representatives at least once a month, you’re falling behind. You’re not participating. And I’m sure there are people who call every day and I want to call everyday but I don’t. But I remind myself when some horrendous thing is happening. I go, “Okay it’s time to make a telephone call, get my voice on record.”

And what I’m realizing is that, there are more opportunities to interact with politics at the community level because it works out. It’s one of the mechanism that was used by the right wing in the United States, is a couple of their touch points where one of the significant levers of changing, of moving America to the right was the notion of Christian Fundamentalists did not what the Theory of Evolution taught in public schools. So, they began to organize at the neighborhood level, at the grass roots level and found that they were very effective. I mean what they could do is they could get Fundamentalist Christians united around this issue of getting creationism into textbooks, in Texas was where this happened. And they made an enormous amount of headway.

Everybody on the conservative side looked at this and said, “Holy shit, what a powerful leather. Let’s do this, let’s do this with all of our issues.” And they began to really work at the grassroots level. And all the progressives on the left said, “That’s fucking stupid. “Because they were looking at creationism and say what’s fucking stupid. Good creationism may be fucking stupid.

Per: So are we saying that the signers are like the grass roots in a UX realm and the UX industry? Because what I’m thinking is everybody seems to becoming more and more aware of the ethics side of things and design. Now the UXers are very well suited to take on this role of educating others. But one of the huge problem seems to be that we’re aware of it but we’re not really doing anything. Well, we can do something but we need to convince others. Because the others are working for profit. Like you’re saying, they’re working for with other goals in mind.

And as long as they’re working for profit then things are going to break. So, I mean our issue then is how do we convince others, not only that ethics is something that we should care about but actually that we need to also pursue and consciously pursue that moral path in business.

Alan: You can’t sell somebody something if they don’t want to buy it. All you can do is you can say, “Look, I’ve got this wonderful little eraser here. It has great capabilities, great features, it’s really good.” Okay, if you don’t need an eraser you’re not interested. But if you’re interested in erasers, tell me more. That’s interesting. And so that’s all you can do is you can inform people. So, there’s a significant issue, which is there’s all this misinformation. And we are the creators of the channels of misinformation. So, all of a sudden, I mean the thing is that there are a bunch of people on Twitter who are saying, “Hey Jack, do something about the trolls and the garbage tweeters.” And Jack is going, “Oh no, I can’t.” Well, yes you can. Not enough people are saying, “Hey Jack, about the trolls and the DOSers and the attackers.” And so, it’s just a matter of saying you need to assert your desires at every level with everybody.

The other thing I think that’s significant is that the middle class is just shriveling up and dying off. And the only middle class that exists is the digital practitioners of the world. We’re it. We’re the remains of the middle class. And the middle class is the class that has discretionary time and discretionary funds. I mean, people who are not in the middle class who are in the ever-growing lower classes they have to work two jobs to stay afloat especially in the US. There’s incredible pride in being self-sufficient. And when self-sufficiency doesn’t work anymore then you get into this kind of just self-destructive loop. And that’s why what you see is heroin addiction or OxyContin addiction are epidemic in the United States.

That’s because that we continually cleave, we cling to this notion that it’s about your initiative and your hard work and your dedication and then and the myth of the meritocracy.

Per: That sound like there’s a huge weight on our shoulders as digital designers actually.

James: I was going to ask Alan. There’s, in the last year, I just want to — When we talked to you last time, you were saying that one of the main reasons that you, made you kind of decide to step back into the limelight and do the ranch stories talk was how you couldn’t, you’d stepped back from Cooper for five years but you felt like you couldn’t let go of the visionary side of it, that you have needed to be the kind of, the big poncho at the top of Cooper doing the visionary thing. I just wondered, how was Cooper or even people that have listened to the talk, how people at Cooper have taken the call to arms, the visionary message that you’ve been spreading with ranch stories this last year?

Alan: Well, I — They really like it. And they just do the thing. I didn’t even know about this. Nobody tells me, I don’t pay attention. I guess I’m out here on the ranch, disconnected. But about eight or ten Cooperistas showed up at Glide Memorial Church the other day which is well known in the San Francisco Bay Area for their taking care of homeless and poor people. And they just quote the day cooking and feeding people. That’s local activism and they love it and they’re proud of it. And I’m loving it or I’m proud of it too. I think there are two things we have to do is one, is that personal thing. You do that because it makes you feel good. But the other one is we have to fundamentally change the system.

I mean, America is building this machine for punishing people, for having created an incredibly productive society. So, productive that there are no jobs anymore. And — I mean, I remember as a kid reading science fiction, and it was this utopian future where machines did all the work and all we got to do is sit around and think lofty thoughts. In many ways, we’re creating that world where we have those machines doing all of our work for us.

Per: Yeah.

Alan: And the problem is, is that none of the benefits of that are accruing to the masses of people. And this is a tragic failure of our economic and political systems.

Per: So, it seems like there is some light at the end of the tunnel with us even discussing these problems and these issues. And I mean yes, we are then the middle. I like that analogy, that we’re the middle class. And I see that yes, people will buy what they need. But I also see UXers becoming experts on the sort of dark side of the UX, becoming experts in behavioral psychology and using that to their advantage of convincing people to do stuff that maybe they don’t need or don’t even want to do if they had time to consider it. But it seems like we’re at a like a fork in the road, and we can choose to go that path where we actually take the money, take that four times as much as I’m making today and convince people to do stuff they don’t want to.

Or I can go to the path where I’d go out and help people and help the real people. But I’m not sure everybody is aware of that fork in the road and that they have — Because there are books written now about how to convince people to buy stuff online using behavioral psychology. And designers, they show these at events as, “This is what you need to do.” And this is scaring me. Why are we doing this?

Alan: Yeah. Well, we set up a toxic system in Silicon Valley, Silicon Valley not being a place but a state of mind. And what we did is we created this venture capital model. And the thing about venture capitalists is there’s only one requirement to be a venture capitalist, and that is you have to have a lot of money. And so, what we’ve done is we’ve — And venture capitalists control innovation in Silicon Valley. So, we don’t build programs that are good for humanity we build programs that make more money for venture capitalists. And we don’t even build programs that make money for venture capitalists, we build programs that make money for venture capitalists right now.

I was a ridiculously naive in the mid-seventies when I started my first software company. My number one goal was to make really great products. I saw this opportunity. Wow, I didn’t have to be a cog and a machine in some giant corporation writing COBOL programs. Instead, I could create software that was actually really unique and cool and innovative and it did things for people, it empowered people.

Per: It’s about helping people, helping people realize what impact they were having, I mean evaluating the outcome and not just the profit and having other performance indicators. This is actually related now to one of my hepto-scalic questions. We started doing this on UX Podcast that we end our interviews with hepto-scalic questions. And I’m going to briefly describe what that is. It’s a — We each, James and I ask a question that we ask you to rate on a scale of one to seven. And it will be obvious how to rate it based on how we post the question.

But the thing is you’re not allowed to answer with anything other than a number. On a scale of one to seven, how aware are business leaders today of what emotional impact their product and services are having on people?

Alan: Three. Well, three is an average. So, what you’ve got is a few sevens and lots of ones.

James: On a scale of one to seven, how much should designers know about code?

Alan: Three.

James: Oh. You see. Now I thought you’d go straight in there on that one. I didn’t think you’d think that long. Oh that was interesting.

Per: I love that pause.

Alan: There’s a lot in a word there. It’s not about code, is very different from code or being able to code. There’s others wanking on Twitter about how oh designers need to, they need to code so that they can be sympathetic to the needs of the programmer. To which I say, who fucking died and said programmers need to have all their co-workers be so sympathetic to their needs? Why is it that the programmers they needed to be sympathetic to the designers? Why is it that programmers have to be sympathetic to the accounting department? Why aren’t we more sympathetic to the user community? And does that mean that if you want to be sympathetic to the user community you have to go out and do the user community’s job? No. We’re very, very good at the graphic research.

And I don’t know how to do thoracic surgery and yet we routinely send teams out to observe and interview thoracic surgeons so we know what the issues are with their jobs, so when we’re designing software for them it serves their needs. Okay, so you need to know what’s important about it or what effects it has. Does that mean you have to stick scalpels in to people’s chests? No. You need to know how to, how to tie up arteries and veins? No. What you need to know is things like if you can’t tie up arteries and veins at this pace, your surgeries take too long and more of your patients die. That’s what you need to know, okay? So, you need to know the equivalent in terms of software. And one of the most important things you need to know about programmers is when are they lying? And the answer is when their lips are moving, okay? Because programmers could go, “Oh, this is far and I can’t do it.” It’s bullshit. It’s software you can do it.

I don’t care what it is, it’s software you can do it. The thing is, is that the issues about code are you have a library, of pre-written routines that’s a stack that started in 1965. okay. And the stuff that you’re doing at the top is really, really simple okay? Because you’re standing on the shoulders of all those giants who came before you. And the other one is you’re inventing a new idiom of it brand new and you have to start coding it. And you have to go down to the lowest level and you have to start worrying about security issues. You have to start worrying about interaction and concurrency problems and stuff like that. Well guess what? Programmers go, “That’s hard. That’s going to take a long time. It’s fraught, it’s risky. I’m not going to do it.”

And so, they sit there and they tell designers what can and can’t be done based on what’s expensive and what’s cheap. And what I want is — I’m not an idiot. I’m not immune to the ideas that you shouldn’t do what’s expensive unless it’s worth doing, okay. Well let’s not have the discussion about whether you need to be sensitive to my needs or whether you need to be able to assess whether something is cheap or expensive. And then whether it’s worth it or not. Okay, that’s a much more meaningful conversation. So, I think this whole code thing is a giant red herring. It’s just not the point. The point is what do we need to know in order to work effectively because designers, developers and people who deploy software are all part of a team.

And they all need to support each other and they need to be sympathetic to the other one’s needs. But sympathy not empathy but sympathy and support is what we need. And you don’t need to know how to code to do that. I don’t need to worry about the shit you worry about. I just need to respect the fact and trust the fact that the shit you’re worrying about you’ll share with me in a realistic and honest way and not tell me what’s hard, but tell me what’s expensive. Because that’s a much more rational and useful way. So, thank you, that’s it. I — That’s a good question because there’s so much, there’s so much, there are so many bits wasted on that shit.

James: I know that me and Per over the years have both said that UXers should have awareness about coding. Because we see it as a, from our lives with a couple of decades of doing this stuff, that it enables communication. You have better communication with some of these people between the team if you have some understanding of what’s going on in their world. But whether you should at least say, whether you should actually know how to get down in there and properly code, no.

Alan: The community that has an ignorance problem is the development community about how designers work. The designer community does not have a problem of ignorance in how programmers work. And the thing is that one of the things that programmers need to learn is they need to learn when designers are charlatans, because there are lot of people out there who are hiring designers who aren’t designers to do designer work. For every one bogus designer there’s a thousand genuine ones. And developers are crying and saying, “Oh, they need to be sympathetic to my needs here in order to be good designers.” Well, in order to be a designer at all and not a bogus designer, you are sympathetic you do know.

Just because you’re a good engineer doesn’t mean you’re going to create a good product. But if you want to create a good product and if you want to take responsibility for a good product then you need to have some more awareness of the people around you who are supporting you in the work you do. The very important, very valuable, critically, difficult challenging important work that you do. I’m not for a second denigrating that. God knows I spent 15 as a software developer and probably shipped more code than most guys who are making this blame have ever coded at all.

Per: Okay Alan. You did not do a great job of just answering with a number there. But that was a fantastic rant so thank you for that. But next time we interview you I’m going to say, “We’re going to come over to Monkey Ranch and sit in your bar and that would be awesome, next year.”

Alan: I would be personally delighted to have you guys come to the Monkey Ranch and sit in the bar.

Per: Thank you so much for doing this with us.

James: Thanks very much Alan.

Per: Yeah.

Alan: You’re welcome.


James: And you’re going to book your tickets to Monkey Ranch then, Per?

Per: I’m going to start checking what flights are available.

James: Yeah, book you on Norwegian tickets. Now I think we should do that. We should start planning now for a UX Podcast special coming to you from Monkey Ranch.

Per: Oh, that’d be awesome.

James: On Cooper’s Monkey Ranch. It will be absolutely awesome.

Per: And watch him do some wood work too.

James: Yeah. We can all get little gifts as presents for being there. I’m not sure if there’s going to be any links for this show. There might be some, we’ll see, definitely the links to the original interview we did of Alan a year ago, Episodes 130 and 131.

Per: Oh, okay.

James: That will be in the notes. And all those episodes, previous episodes can be found at I’m Beantin at Twitter. B E A N T I N. And he is axe bomb. A X B O M and together we’re UXPodcast all one word. You could find us any way you would like. Thank you for taking the time to listen. And as a thank you, please recommend us. Recommend UX Podcast to a colleague. Remember to keep moving. See you on the other side.


Per: Knock-knock

James: Who’s there?

Per: Cows go.

James: Cows go who?

Per: No silly, cows go moo.

James: Ugh. No, I’m not laughing. I’m not laughing at that one.

[End of transcript]

This is a transcript of a conversation between James Royal-Lawson, Per Axbom and Alan Cooper recorded for UX Podcast in April 2017. To hear more episodes visit or search for UX Podcast in your favourite podcast client.

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