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Ways We Work

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On building products using goal-directed design and persona development.

Goal-directed design and personas are staples in the product design handbook. While design tools and methods used are constantly evolving, the concept of a persona has largely remained the same since it was first popularized in 1999 in Alan Cooper’s book, The Inmates Are Running the Asylum. Alan Cooper’s list of accomplishments is long: he’s the “Father of Visual Basic” and co-founded Cooper, the storied business strategy and interaction design consultancy where goal-directed design and personas were born. In December, we spent an afternoon with the team at Cooper’s San Francisco office (they also have a location in New York). We wanted to learn how they apply these methods today, how their process has developed, and the challenges they face as the industry itself continues to change.

Cooper’s offices are located in downtown San Francisco and take up the entire 8th floor of the building. Matt and I walked off the elevator and were greeted by a large Cooper mural on the wall made out of recycled computer keys. We were met by Andrew Kaufteil, Cooper’s Director of Engagement, who gave us a quick tour of the office and explained who we would be talking to. About half of the space was open-concept with desks throughout, which then narrowed down to a hallway with breakout rooms--or “war rooms” as the team at Cooper refers to them. There was also large kitchen stocked full of snacks and then the hallway continued into more war rooms, meeting rooms, and a large classroom space where the team runs workshops under their Cooper U initiative.

After the tour, we gathered in a large meeting room in the office with five members of the Cooper team to get a rundown on the way their project teams are structured. At Cooper, roles and processes are well-defined. Project teams have at least three consultants: one “synthesizer”(or “synth”), one “generator” (or “gen”), and an engagement lead that keeps a high-level view of the project and the client’s needs. We were introduced to Brendan Kneram, a gen, Lauren Ruiz, a synth, and Kaycee Collins, who had recently joined the team as a gen designer. Also in the room was former design fellow Chris Noessel and engagement lead Suzy Thompson. Having heard the term synth and gen throughout introductions, they took some time to explain the difference between the different “flavors” of designers at Cooper.

They explained that the idea of having clearly defined designer roles came from a conflict in the early days of Cooper. Alan and another designer had strong and opposing opinions on design, and found it difficult to agree upon solutions. Shortly afterward, a third designer joined them and took it upon herself to step back and help direct the conversation. This method of having one designer generating ideas, and one observing and guiding the process - became so productive that they formalized this way of working together. In each project at Cooper, there is a “gen” designer, someone who is most comfortable picking up a pen and generating big ideas, and the “synth” designer, someone who is skilled at making connections between those ideas and articulating how they translate into practical designs. Talking with the designers in the room, it’s clear that this relationship is a core component of Cooper’s process.

In addition to pair design, project teams at Cooper follow a goal-directed process and move through similar phases that you might see at other design consultancies: discovery, research, modelling, framework and detail. Lauren elaborated on how this method works, explaining that “discovery and research is a major part of the learning process. Modelling is about synthesizing and reframing it in new ways and having research outlets, and then ‘framework’ is where we start to define what the product does. Kind of like a blueprint for a house. “Where are things going to go?” and “How is it going to work?” Then, we dive into the extreme details of how the product behaves, what the buttons do, etc.”

During discovery and research, the design team conducts interviews and research together, so they both have a strong understanding of the client’s and users’ needs. The gen and synth roles are punctuated in the modelling phase of a project, where they take everything gathered from discovery and research and use it to develop personas and define what the true goals of the product are. Chris explained that often the synth will take the lead during this phase, because they are synthesizing all of the information. Then during framework, the gen designer takes the lead, generating ideas, sketching and creating possible solutions.

For both roles to work effectively they need to be in sync, so there is never this idea of going to your desk, working on the design alone, and coming back together to explain it. As this way of working has evolved, project teams at Cooper have grown to include a visual designer and an engagement lead role. Visual designers at Cooper are interaction designers who, as the title suggests, specialize in visual design. The engagement lead is responsible for managing the relationship with the client, conducting QA on a product, and making sure the product stays within scope. Teams at Cooper are focused on a single client project at a time, allowing them to dive deep and avoid having to switch context. Suzy explained how it benefitted the team by allowing them to focus and not worry about the time that’s lost when you’re constantly having to switch gears, “you don’t have to wonder which crisis is more of a crisis.” For the client, Suzy added, it means “you get our designers working on your project full time during business hours but odds are they’ll probably be noodling on your problem in the shower and while they’re washing dishes and while they’re sitting stuck in traffic. You really get to focus, which is nice.”

“You really keep the gen and synth focused on the functionality and behavior of the product, and the visual designer is really thinking about the brand strategy, the overall look and feel.” —Lauren

Cooper’s processes have largely developed and evolved around this concept of co-creation and the gen and synth relationship. For example, war rooms grew out the team’s desire to work more efficiently and cut down on the time between going away to design and having to come back to compare notes. The practice of war rooms came about organically, Brendan explained that they would often host clients in conference rooms for a day or two, and camp out working on the project. It turns out that proximity ended up being very productive. So the practice of working together in a war room became crucial, naturally encouraging this co-creation process between designers. Regardless of the tools being used on a project, the gen designer is generating ideas in real time, and talking through them so that the synth designer has something to respond to. This environment, where the project lives inside this shared space, facilitates this way of working and supports the gen/synth relationship.

Although design pairs tend work together for a few projects, they make a point to change up teams regularly when the project schedule permits. It means that designers stay fresh and get a range of experience working with different skill sets and abilities. It also helps make sure that a pair doesn’t get so comfortable together that they lean on each other too much for things they should both be doing. Lauren added that this "break-up" can sometimes be a little difficult having developed such a close working relationship, but this practice of swapping pairs on a regular basis has been crucial to how Cooper evolves. If a new tool or a new process works well with one pair, often it will get passed on in the next team. This helps make the adoption of new tools and new ways of working more iterative and natural.

In addition to the gen/synth designer relationship and co-creating inside war rooms, there are two main things that Cooper is known for: the Goal-Directed design methodology and the use of persona development within that. Personas are formed by the designers from the discovery and research phases of the project and come directly from user interviews, which are highly specific and defined. Communicating the value of the discovery and research phases to the client early on, is another key element, so that the client understands why they might not be seeing screens or visual designs right away. We saw examples of these personas inside one project’s war room; it listed the persona’s name, background, and specific motivations and goals. These goals become the litmus test for everything throughout the course of the project. This ensures that the conversation isn’t around tasks or features or even functions, but instead how the product will meet each persona’s goals. Lauren gave an example: “A goal might be traveling; so if you’re traveling from coast to coast, someone’s goal isn’t to buy an airplane ticket. Their goal is to get from point A to point B safely and efficiently, and that’s something that can stand the test of time.” Framing the product through the eyes of these personas and their goals helps both the designers and the client stay away from deciding things based on their personal preferences. Of course, they still get pushback from clients from time to time, but personas help frame the conversation because they are well-defined and agreed-upon before any detailed building starts.

“Personas tend to be very misused and misunderstood. Goals are one of the most important aspects of a persona, and this is often what we see missing. We look for those goals in our research and then design for them in our scenarios. These are stories of how our personas accomplish their goals, using the product or service we're designing.” —Lauren

Historically, the team has marketed the value of Cooper's Goal-Directed design through books that Alan Cooper and others on the team have published. Another way they communicate the value of design and how to effectively lead design teams, is through Cooper U, where they host workshops and seminars for the public (in San Francisco, New York, and LA), as well as private clients around the globe. In addition, they host internal workshops, usually over lunch on Fridays where someone from the company (or friends from the outside) presents or facilitates discussion either around Cooper’s process, or on various topics ranging from meditation, astronomy, and art.

As with many teams, talent acquisition can be a challenge, especially in a place like San Francisco. Suzy added that there are a lot of really talented designers that might not be a fit at Cooper because of the polarized gen and synth roles. Many often have some generative skills and some analytical skills and fall somewhere in the middle of both. She added, “we tend to hire people on the polls who are extremely generative and extremely analytical or have the ability to synthesize and process the flight patterns and things like that so that we have people who fit together and create two pieces of a board.”

“All Engagement Leads used to be, or still are designers. I think that is a really great aspect of it as well, so when they’re handling a lot of the interactions with the client, they don’t have to come to the designers and ask: "did I answer that right?"” —Suzy

What stood out the most from our conversations with the team at Cooper is how clearly defined their processes and roles are, but also how challenging it can be to effectively evolve those over time. Not only is the industry continuously evolving, but Cooper as an organization continues to grow and change as well. As a team they face a lot of similar challenges that other design consultancies do: talent acquisition, communicating value to clients and more recently how to blend their culture and methods with their East Coast office in New York. Cooper has been around for almost 25 years and is a team who has literally “written the books” on product design. It was fascinating to spend an afternoon with the team and learn how they've grown and adapted to the ever-changing product design landscape.

Thanks to the whole team at Cooper for inviting us in and spending the time to illustrate how your process is applied in real projects. And special thanks to Alan Cooper for personally taking the time to tell us some great stories of the early days of Cooper.