Where I disagree with Alan Cooper (or why bits are no different to atoms)

Cross-posted from the Red Gate UX Blog.

Alan Cooper was, and still is, one of my heroes. Reading his book The Inmates are Running the Asylum almost ten years ago was a call to arms; a rallying cry saying that design was much more than placing things nicely on a screen. There was a higher purpose.

User Experience today has evolved to be a field that tries to achieve that higher purpose by melding ‘traditional’ design skills with research, boardroom facilitation, strategic thinking and ethics. As designers we strongly believe that design can be used in a much wider context than ‘pure’ software design and Alan’s opening keynote at UX London last month spoke directly to this belief.

Alan spoke like a true visionary: he advocated “the balanced team”, asked us to focus on effectiveness rather than efficiency and insisted that customer centered change is where future competitive advantages will come from. He was eloquent and persuasive.

I completely agree with his end result. However, I don’t quite agree with the assumption underpinning his thinking.

Alan’s Assumption

Alan claims that the software and design are fundamentally different to other industries because the former deals in “bits” and the second deals in “atoms”. Bits are virtual, and thus “free”, while atoms are “material” and thus costly.

He takes this to mean that an atom-based organisation – say a car manufacturer – must focus on efficiency and cost reduction. The materiality of “atoms” inherently leads such an organisation to self-organise in the typical “Ford Production Line” model of a few white-collar workers controlling a horde of blue-collar ones.

On the other hand a bits-based organisation – say Google – is free to focus on effectiveness and value creation. The lack of materiality of bits inherently leads to a “no-collar workers” organisation, distributing the decision-making power more widely and empowering developers and designers to drive business decisions and build products around users.

Problem 1: There are plenty of ‘effective’ atom-based organisations

Arguably the largest pioneers of effective and democratic business practices in the last century were Toyota and Semco SA. You can’t get more ‘atomic’ than this: Toyota builds automobiles and Semco builds industrial machinery, airports and hospitals.

Semco’s CEO Ricardo Semler practically invented “industrial democracy” and re-engineered the most traditional of companies into one where power is devolved almost entirely to the shop floor. Under his leadership the company proved that it is possible to be successfully “effective” in a material industry: its revenue is now USD $212 million compared to a mere USD $4 million in 1982 when Ricardo took the helm.

Similarly, Toyota has propelled itself to being the world’s leading car manufacturer by creating what is now known as “The Toyota Way”. A manifesto for organisational excellence based on five core principles: challenge, respect, teamwork, improvement and “go and see”. The last principle effectively being the one that turns the traditional white-/blue-collar approach upside down: “white collars” need to go and see and experience what happens on the shop floor.

“But Richard,” I hear you say, “these are just two organisations.”

True. The point however is that they prove beyond doubt that ‘effectiveness’ is not limited to bits-based organisations and, moreover, these two companies have been more of a role model to the software industry than any others. (Think “lean production” and “lean start-ups”.)

Besides, there are plenty more. Just get yourself a copy of Small Giants to see.

Problem 2: The focus on ‘efficiency’ is not a result of atom-based constraints but of ethical choices

I argue that atom-based industries’ focus on maximising efficiency and minimising costs has absolutely nothing to do with the physical properties of the materials they deal in. Production lines and automation removed the need for skilled workers. Cars used to be built by artisans and craftsmen. Today they are built by robots (mechanical or human).

Companies like Toyota and Semco have shown that such workers can be treated like human beings (i.e. well-paid and empowered) not only in an economically viable way, but in a hugely beneficial way because they make the organisation more effective, and as a side-effect, more profitable and stable.

Organisations who mistreat their employees do not do it because of unchangeable efficiency factors, the do it under the guise of efficiency factors. What it boils down to is plain and simple ethical choice.

Problem 3: The reverse applies to the bits-based industries

If there is one industry where you can rely on more and more efficient automation its ours. Software is about automation. Where a mere ten years ago building an online shopping cart required skilled craftsmen, today my dad can do it with a few clicks. Thousands of developers and testers today work in what is effectively nothing more than a blue-collar role. Dilbert is funny because he resonates with all-to-real experiences.

That certain companies treat their engineers with respect is, once again, purely a matter of choice. There is no inherent constraint in bits that means developers and designers will only work if they’re treated like adults.

More broadly, it is not just our industry that operates in a non-atom-based environment. The legal and financial industries, for instance, deal with similarly abstract and virtual ‘materials’. Why aren’t they too compelled by the lack of ‘atoms’ in their worlds to move towards shop-floor empowerment?

It’s all about choice

This is what it boils down to. You choose to treat people fairly or you don’t. You choose to design your organisation ethically or you don’t.

Alan Cooper is not wrong in suggesting that we need balanced teams, a focus on effectiveness and more user centered change. On the contrary, he’s absolutely right.

Where he’s wrong is in the path he takes to get there. The path implies that software and design are inherently ‘special’ and occupy some form of natural moral high ground. As practitioners we need to realise that we need to work hard to maintain and justify our position as “effective industries”.

But more importantly, if design does indeed have a higher purpose, I believe that a big part of it involves our responsibility to encourage and advocate ethical choices across the board.

Because it’s a design choice that we know works.


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