Monday, April 13, 2009

Meeting Alan Cooper

Not everyone has the opportunity to meet one of their heroes, but last week I was very lucky to last week spend some time talking with Alan Cooper.  

I can remember almost ten years ago when I read his first book "The Inmates are Running the Asylum", and the huge impact it caused.  At the time I was a Product Manager at Novell, and trying hard to figure out why a company that had such a great past and so many good people, could be producing such terrible products as NetWare 4.  This was my first Product Management job, and I received no training or mentoring, so hit the books to learn what I could.

In the book Alan describes why most high technology products (not just software) are infuriatingly difficult to use and importantly how to restore the sanity.  Novell could have used his advice on moving to a more user centric design model - but instead they were focused on features implemented via a very difficult to use product (that required weeks of training to properly install & manage).  Microsoft beat Novell by coming at the problem more from usability (and a GUI) - I can remember the first time I installed Windows NT networking (zero training) and had a working system in less that an hour - I knew we were in trouble.

Since those days I've used techniques like Alan describes, such as his concept of persona's, and seen the beneficial impact of being able to describe what customers are really like to the Engineering teams.  Used correctly, persona's can be applied across the whole organization to focus them on the customers (and markets) that the company serves.

I have distributed hundreds of copies of the book to friends, peers, colleagues and senior execs, and would easily rank it as my #1 business book.  The book stands the test of time, and movements like Agile are finally attempting to create permanent solutions to the bad habits.

As well as the the inventor of Personas, Alan is also known as "the father of Visual basic", and author of an equally influential book "About Face: The essentials of user Interaction Design".  He is the founder of Cooper, a well respected San Francisco based design, training and consulting organization.  I met Alan during the recent Innovation Games course (which was held at his company's training facilities), and we sat down for a discussion during lunch.

Alan has not lost any of his passion for remedying bad software and design, but sees some hope with the movement to Agile development processes.  Alan contends that for many years developers have loved to "throw away their toys" and reinvent news ones, such as the movement from procedural to object oriented languages, from client server to web services, from text based to visual environments etc, but Agile is the first time developers have focused on people and process.  Although there are many specific agile development methods, most promote development iterations, teamwork, collaboration, and process adaptability throughout a project - not just better tools.

We also had a discussion how many technology companies are very conservatively managed and organized, and he felt it was because society adapted to manage technology companies using the same tools that were taught to manage industrial processes in the early 20th century e.g. Max Weber (1864-1920) developed organisational structures of management by the office, and was the originator of the term bureaucracy.  The goal of practitioners like Weber was to develop principles whereby large corporations could be controlled and developed (way before software existed!).

Using traditional scientific management principles, such as tight control of the inputs during manufacture, are still relevant today to physical manufacturing, but do not make sense when applied to technology.  His example was Google and their outcome (the largest and most profitable media company in the world) would have been the same whether they spent $50K, $500K or $5M to get their service up and running - the success of the output is not directly related to control and manipulation of the inputs.  Alan postulated, for this reason, that trying to calculate ROI across an IT project is a ridiculous concept.

One of his stories I liked is that Alan mentioned recently learning to play golf, and figured out why business executives like it so much.  In any well designed golf course the penalties for risk are far greater than playing safe.  If you or I tried to play like Tiger Woods, we'd likely hit the ball into the trees, and be on the green in 4 - when playing it safe would guarantee being on the green in 2 shots.  So golf actively reinforces not to take risk.  Most executives like to think that they take risks like Tiger Woods, but when it comes to the crunch, they take the safe play.

A number of times during the course Alan said he'd like to work out "how to make old farts think young" - to generalize, how do you get conservative technology organizations to see the need to change.  After spending last weekend at the SF Startup Weekend, I know exactly what he means, there is a generation of young people (or the young at heart :-)) who do things differently, such as how they use social media and development processes like Agile.

Interestingly, I had an interview at an 8 person startup in San Francisco last week, and they were very concerned that I was one of the "old farts" (after so long in large corporates).  They were happy to know that I used tools like Twitter, Google Apps, Wiki's, Blogging etc, and had build an app in a weekend.  I had to work really hard to convince them that I could exist in this new world.

Ultimately, companies that do not adapt will be swept away by a new generation of people and the companies they create  i.e. organizational Darwinism - you will either adapt, or become extinct.

1 comment:

  1. Phil, I like the analogy to Golf - maybe that explains why I don't do so well? ;-)