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Why Alan Cooper is Wrong About the Value of Design


Alan Cooper is extremely noteworthy in the design world. He founded a successful consultancy. His book About Face, and his colleague Kim Goodwin’s book Designing for the Digital Age, are essential texts for any UX designer. I cite both all over the place in my first book, and have recommended them to dozens of aspiring designers.

So I was sad to see a couple of articles by him, “What’s the ROI of UX?” and “ROI Does Not Apply”. I think Cooper is hitting on an important issue in our industry, but I don’t think that his recommendations are helpful – especially to junior designers.

The #1 question I get from designers is how to prove the value of their work, and Cooper’s suggestion probably isn’t the answer anyone wants to hear. In his words:

If your boss is asking you to quantify the value of your work, you need to understand that your work indeed has no value. Not at that company. Not with that boss. So when your boss asks you “What is the value of your work?” you have only two valid courses of action: 1) Accept that you and your situation are a valueless combination; or B) Go some place where your work is valued. Go somewhere that doesn’t ask the value of your work, but instead values your work!

Noping off your job and finding your tribe doesn’t help the broader cause of design. Period. It presupposes that design non-believers – if such a concept even exists – cannot be converted into believers, and it’s not worth trying.

I’ve seen otherwise over the 12 years that I’ve been in the industry. It takes hard, thankless work. It’s often for little reward. But doing so is vital towards ensuring that design is understood widely – and I don’t think we’re remotely done yet. Leaving places that don’t “get” design is a cynical and lazy way to approach your career. Sometimes it’s necessary to leave outright-hostile environments, yes, but it’s not a black-and-white issue.

Furthermore, if it’s bad for someone to ask what the quantitative value of our work is, then it’s probably bad for us to measure the impact of our work in the first place. And if that’s the case, then how do we justify our existence?

Cooper suggests that the answer comes from within:

The question isn’t “How can I convince my boss of the value of UX?” The question is “How can I convince myself of the value of my own work?” What is the value of your work? Does your work have value? If it’s not obvious, it doesn’t have any.

I don’t think this is the real question we should be asking ourselves, and I don’t think that the value of new design work necessarily has to be obvious. In fact, it’s extremely easy to go through an entire project overestimating the value of your work. It’s doubly easy to go down this path when you’re fresh out of school, with a lot of bold ideas that haven’t been refined by real-world experience.

Value comes from someone else. If your work has value, that means someone else values it. And value is not always obvious to the person creating it.

In my experience, this idea is not immediately clear to the design industry. Instead, we want to work at awesome companies that “get” design and actively support it. But that’s not doing the hard work of convincing others that don’t yet “get” design about why it’s important.

Cooper is right that “what is the value of your work?” is a crappy question that needs to be unasked. By the time it comes up, that’s a tell that people don’t trust that you’re pulling your weight.

But I absolutely think that a designer needs to render the asking of that question irrelevant. It should never have to be asked in the first place.

Instead, designers should be focused, from day zero, on the creation of value for wherever they happen to work. If that looks like “innovation,” as Cooper describes, great. If that’s solely focused on usability improvements to a checkout form to make it easier for people to give a store money, great.

But whatever happens, the “value” question should not be a thing. Our delivery of value should be so blindingly clear to all of our clients that such a question would scan as preposterous. And even then, we’d answer it with our work.

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