Alan Cooper – Persona grata

It has been twenty years since I first read Alan Cooper’s book “About Face – The Essentials of User Interface Design”. At the time I was working as a product manager for a division of a Fortune 500 company. I had become interested in programming while working on a part number cross-reference tool for our order desk. I took Cooper’s book with me on a 10-day business trip. Reading it was instrumental in starting a career change for me from marketing to IT.

At the time he wrote “About Face”, Alan Cooper was best known as the “Father of Visual Basic”. For anyone who had learned programming using a command-line style C compiler, the VB IDE was a breath of fresh air and won Cooper awards. The VB IDE was an early example of Cooper’s obsession with making user interfaces more intuitive. In the case of VB, the users were programmers who were using VB to create user interfaces for others. Over the years Cooper has written more books on the same subject (interface design) including “The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High-Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity” and three more editions of “About Face”.

In Cooper’s explanation of what “About Face” is about he says, in part, “To those who are intrigued by the technology – which includes most of us programmer types – we share a strong tendency to think in terms of functions and features. This is only natural, since this is how we build software: function by function. The problem is that this isn’t how users want to use software.”

Cooper now runs a San Francisco design firm specializing in “Interaction Design”. The normal development cycle for computer software goes something like this: gather requirements, design, code, deploy, train and support users, repeat. Cooper instead focuses on designing software systems around real-world usability from the very beginning, lessening the need for training, support and repeat cycles. While software design tools such as the Unified Modelling Language (UML) do use “actors” to represent users that interact with a software system, those “actors” can be very generic and can even simply represent other systems interacting with software. Cooper and his design team have taken the “interaction” concept a step beyond by creating what they refer to as “personas” to represent not just human users of a system, but human users with varying skill levels and different tasks to perform and different needs from the system. Designers are encouraged to give the personas names and personalities to help them identify with them and think about how they would be using the software.

Critics have pointed out the similarities between Cooper’s methods and methods used by marketing. Nevertheless, using personas to design for a wide swath of possible users — such as may be the case with web applications — makes more sense than simply designing for a generic “user” and is simpler and less costly than employing focus groups or surveys.

Many thanks to Alan Cooper for helping me decide to make a career change those many years ago and for continuing to be a source of new ideas and inspiration.