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Leadership

A UX Legend On The Much-Rumored Death Of The Design Firm

Alan Cooper, a UX pioneer, argues that independent consultants offer one value you can never buy: perspective.

[Top Photo: imagenavi/Getty Images]

Alan Cooper is a pioneer in the software world: In the 1970's, he created seminal business software for microcomputers. Then, in 1988, he invented Visual Basic, one of the world's most influential programming languages. In 1992, he cofounded Cooper, an interaction-design consulting firm that invented design methods commonplace today, such as personas. Cooper is also the author of About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design, now in it's fourth edition

Today, there are dozens of examples of hugely successful, design-driven companies. The message is getting through: User experience design makes you more successful. And so it's understandable that company men nudge each other and grunt, "We need some of that design stuff!" They hire independent firms. They gain value from a novel perspective. Then, after a while, these same business people ask themselves if they might not save money by bringing some designers in-house. Wouldn’t it be more efficient, they ask, if these designers worked for us instead of for some outside firm?

The answer, of course, is that it would be more efficient. But that simple answer hides the more significant question: Is more efficiency what you need? Is efficiency going to help you succeed? The companies buying design firms may ultimately find that they didn’t get the benefit they imagined. Bringing a troupe of independent practitioners in-house likely will not dull their practice, but it certainly ends their independence, and it is precisely that independence that allows us to work our magic.

AzmanJaka/Getty Images

Contrary to popular belief, I’ve found that clients typically don’t lack in invention. But they do lack perspective. Take one famous example: In 1973, working for Kodak, Steven Sasson invented the digital camera. Yet the photography giant refused to develop the product because it threatened their core business of making film. That was a reasonable assessment, but it was also one that placed Kodak’s own interests ahead of its users', thus assuring its long-term demise.

Companies still need the help of an outsider to show them how their deep familiarity with the problem is confounding their ability to see it clearly. They often wrestle with such cognitive illusions as confirmation bias, where they only see evidence that confirms their thinking, or loss aversion, where people are more willing to take risks to prevent a loss than to take risks to obtain a gain.

That’s where designers come in. They occupy the (understandably unpopular) position of prioritizing the users’ needs and behaviors over the ingrained views and risk-averse assumptions of the enterprise. But that wasn’t always such an obvious idea. Twenty-five years ago, our firm and others were inventing the very idea of user experience in real time. We soon realized that to design mere screens, we had to understand users in a way that was also central to the entire corporation.

PhotoAlto/Laurence Mouton

And yet corporate behemoths still confuse what designers make with what designers do. Twenty-five years ago, we realized that wireframes and prototypes were actually far down the line, in value. The hard problem wasn’t figuring out how screens should behave. The hard problem was figuring out what problem is worth solving—then making sure everyone is on the same page. Put another way, if you have hundreds or even thousands of employees, the only way to get them to work together coherently is a single, unifying vision. That’s exactly what interaction designers do. Today, user experience designers, gifted with an impartial perspective, can readily provide critical strategic insights in every stage of the product development process.

If you gain efficiency while losing the outside perspective, you gain nothing. If you save money while suppressing the motivation to tell unpleasant truths inside your company, what have you gained? Saving money on designers isn’t a good deal if you subject those designers to the same cultural forces that prevent your other practitioners from thinking outside the corporate box.

I’m not predicting doom and annihilation for those UX consulting companies that get acquired by banks and engineering firms. They will do just fine, and probably do some very high-quality design work that they—and their purchasers—can be proud of. There is plenty of design work that needs to be done. That’s the thing: The entire relentless onslaught of digital technology needs to be shaped and designed to serve the needs of its users rather than the needs of its creators. The salient characteristic of design in the 21st century is that we need one whole hell of a lot of it. We need designers on the inside, designers on the outside, designers at inception, designers during development, and designers after release three-point-oh. But for a large, and growing, cohort of businesses, the independence of the external design consultancy is exactly what they need to see their future clearly and march purposely toward it.

The lever to move a company must be long and its fulcrum must be external to the organization. This is the role of the independent design firm, which is needed now more than ever. Our independence is the particular characteristic that our clients most want from us (whether they know it or not). Our future is rock solid. As the founder and owner of such an independent firm, I am putting my money where my mouth is. I’m expanding our company.