When Prometheus stole fire from the gods to give to man, he created a priesthood of fire makers, highly trained in the arts and mysteries of flame. It wasn’t until the masses got ahold of fire that a different approach was needed.
In the early days of the tech industry, there was programming and little else. Programmers were the high priests, and everyone else kept a respectful distance. Users didn’t really exist. There was certainly no notion of a practice of interaction design. There was no such profession, either. No one had “interaction design” as a job title. Of course, there were no consulting companies to hire those nonexistent professionals to perform that nonexistent practice.
When I first learned to program digital computers in 1973, I joined the priesthood. I was a specially trained expert, just like every other person who used computers, which, at that time, were all enormous mainframes, permanently set up in air conditioned rooms specially built to house the holy relics.
At about the same time, Intel was inadvertently spreading fire to the congregation by inventing the microprocessor; an entire computer on a single chip. It’s release in 1975 was Promethean in scope and effect.
It took 15 years for most people to realize that things had fundamentally changed, but, not coincidentally, there was a lot of turmoil and action within the priesthood. During those 15 years I wrote a lot of software. I learned a lot from my mistakes, and I gradually began to see a new path open up ahead.
Most of the software I and others wrote in those years was modeled after the mainframe software that so dominated the industry. My first products did accounting and inventory. Of course, the tools of the day were so primitive that — of necessity — I ended up writing programming languages and operating systems, too.
Lost as we all were in the details of writing usable code, we couldn’t see the forest for the trees. The most significant characteristic of mainframe thinking was that software was a professional tool built by experts to be used by specialists to perform valuable corporate tasks. The very notion that computer software needed to be easy to use was an alien concept at a time when software wasn’t really…used.
The most significant characteristic of mainframe thinking was that software was a professional tool built by experts to be used by specialists to perform valuable corporate tasks.
Once individuals could buy computers for a few hundred dollars, those computers could be used for silly things, like drawing birthday cards and playing games. When you can use a computer to play games and draw, you aren’t a professional. You are just people.
Not only are the tasks different when the laity use computers, but their goals and methods and desires are different from their priestly predecessors. This tectonic shift finally became evident after business people did some math. A million people buying thousand dollar personal computers was a far bigger business than a few corporations buying million dollar mainframes.
For the first time, computers were being used for “personal” tasks. Hobbyists wrote simple BASIC-language programs to categorize their stamp collections and operate their model railroads. The big difference was that a hobbyist paid to use stamp collection software, instead of getting paid to use accounting software. From a programmer’s vantage point, the code looks pretty much the same, but from a user-motivation vantage point, it’s night-and-day different.
As an old-timer in the software industry, I saw the tectonic shift earlier than most others. I had been lucky enough to see the change grow and develop and recognized its importance before it exploded in everyone’s face. By 1990, I was preaching a new gospel: the way software behaves towards its human users is even more important than what it does.
The way software behaves towards its human users is even more important than what it does.
This was still viewed as heresy by most, and there grew a pitched battle with the old priesthood. My scrappy, combative nature was an asset in this struggle. There were still those who thought that writing operating systems was the hard problem and that writing application software was easy. They thought, if applications are easy, then interfaces to applications are easy, too.
I could clearly see the huge difference between writing clean code and determining what that code would do, and in particular, how that code would interact with the humans who would use it. It was a design problem, not an engineering one, and I wanted to concentrate all of my efforts on this challenge.
I struggled for a couple years to figure out this new role. I knew that I had to stop coding to focus on design, yet I couldn’t imagine how that would work in practice. Finally, in 1992, after much hand-wringing, I decided to try out a new role. I told my industry friends and colleagues that I was available for hire to help them make their products better. For the first time in my career, I became a consultant. I called myself a “Software Designer.”
I offered to help my prospective clients to “design” their products in such a way that their users would be happier and more productive. I did so with one proviso: I was not going to code.
To my surprise, a few of them hired me. Less surprisingly, I gave them significant value for their money. Two years later I had so many clients I didn’t have time for them all, so I asked my wife, Sue, to join me and create a company and grow. By this time I had begun to call myself an “Interaction Designer,” and Cooper Interaction Design became the very first interaction design consulting company.
We hired a lot of creative mavericks with quirky resumés. The only trait they had in common was the strong desire to make technology easy to use. No one had job experience in interaction design because that job didn’t exist yet. No one had degrees in interaction design because no schools taught it yet.
One of our designers left a job writing technical documentation. Another one was a frustrated developer. Many of them had bounced around in various companies just helping developers to see the world beyond their screens.
The word got out that Cooper’s help was worth the price, and our client list grew. In the beginning, our clientele was mostly small, Silicon Valley tech companies, but soon the likes of Sony and IBM were knocking on our door.
I learned so much during those first few years that I was bursting with insight and knowledge. It was apparent that my know-how was unique, so I wrote my first book, About Face, putting literally everything I knew about interaction design into that manuscript. When I was done I was drained and empty. I thought I would never write again. I was wrong, and three years later — once again full of insight — I wrote my second book, The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, making the business case for interaction design.
In the mid-1990s, the digitization of media and the advent of the World Wide Web birthed many millions of new users. The priesthood reeled as an explosion of new companies focused their attention on users instead of technology. This resulted in a burgeoning need for interaction design, and Cooper stood ready to deliver.
It was remarkably exciting in those early days of Cooper. We were doing things nobody had ever done before, and our work was changing the way people thought and behaved. I began to see that Cooper was serving a larger role than just making money. We were doing three things — three distinct achievements — and I shared this insight with my colleagues.
The first thing we were doing was building a company.
The second thing we were doing was defining a practice.
The third thing we were doing was establishing a profession.
It’s hard to build any company, but it was a real challenge to create a company whose sole offering was almost universally unknown. Besides, Cooper was funded entirely by our operations and had no investment capital. All we had to offer was results.
Eventually, others offered similar services, but Cooper’s unique contribution was creating tools, processes, and systems of thought that elevated our work beyond just clever solutionizing. This suite of tools is the foundation of all today’s user experience design. Through our inventions, we created a practice of interaction design.
Through our inventions, we created a practice of interaction design.
From my long years and my subsequent cessation of programming, I knew how powerful a conflict of interest existed between coding and design. One simply cannot make fair decisions about what to build when one has to then do the building. Therefore, from the very beginning, I forbade our designers from coding. I had another reason, too. I wanted everyone to see that the benefits of hiring Cooper came from design work and not from programming. I wanted people to know that our practice constituted an important role in the tech industry. We were not just advisors to development, but a peer. By thus isolating our work, we created a profession of interaction design.
By thus isolating our work, we created a profession of interaction design.
Today, there are hundreds of schools teaching interaction design, including several that teach nothing else. There are thousands of businesses that hire tens of thousands of interaction designers, including many who tout their design as their unique selling proposition. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of interaction designers, user experience designers, design directors, service designers, information architects, and similarly titled practitioners working hard to make technology fun and easy, yet powerful and practical.
Over the years, as Cooper refined our tools, the practice of interaction design became so powerful that we regularly influenced the product choice, pricing strategy, and even corporate organization of our clients. In recognition of this greater responsibility, in 2003 we dropped “Interaction Design” from our name and became just “Cooper.”
This year, 2017, we are celebrating our 25th year. There are so many notable accomplishments to be proud of, but what stands out in my mind is these three things. We invented a sophisticated practice, we established it as a respectable profession, and we did so while building a company and earning our living.