Alan Cooper's Checklist For Being A Visionary

“If we want users to like our software, we should design it to behave like a likeable person.” So said Alan Cooper, the father of Visual Basic, back in 1999. He went on to further articulate the characteristics of this mythical “likeable person,” saying that polite software:
  • is interested in me
  • is deferential to me
  • is forthcoming
  • has common sense
  • anticipates my needs
  • is responsive
  • gives instant gratification
  • is taciturn about its personal problems
  • is well informed
  • is perceptive
  • is self-confident
  • stays focused
  • is fudge-able
  • is trustworthy

I don’t know what your experience of likable people is, but in mine this list seems a bit different to your average “I’ll have a six-pack with him” kind of list. On the contrary; it sounds like the personality requirements of a butler.

This is in no way inappropriate. Good software should have a much higher service standard to it than good friends. The software, after all, is (or ought to be) designed to work for you, while your friends are merely sharing the journey. People who are “deferential to me” are not necessarily likeable, but the characteristic of putting my wants first is extremely desirable in a software offering.



In fact, it’s extremely desirable in any kind of service or industry (remembering that all industry is service to some degree). How much does your company anticipate customer needs? How trustworthy is it? Interestingly, how self-confident is it?

I find that last specifically interesting because we rarely in conscious thought consider brands self-confident. And yet this is an essential characteristic for a brand in the 21st century. Can you be deferential AND self-confident? Think about the kind of service you get at an Apple store and the kind of attitude the folks at Apple have about their products. “We’re going to give you the best possible shopping experience,” they seem to say, “because it’s the only kind of shopping experience that should accompany our kick-ass products.”

There’s one other item on that list deserving of a more prominent mention: “anticipates my needs.” This is where we get into “people don’t know what they want until we show it to them” territory.

Anticipating people’s needs to a small degree is fundamental to good design, e.g.: “What action do we want them to take on this web page? What information or tools do they need in order to take that action? How can we make that information or those tools readily and obviously accessible?”

But the ability to anticipate people’s needs to a large degree, to see mega-trends and service gaps and market opportunities, to be one step ahead of them (but no more, lest you become ahead of your time) -- that’s where the gold is, folks. That’s where fortunes are made and legends are created. That is what takes us out of the realm of butlers and into another territory altogether.

In itemizing the characteristics of polite software, Cooper has inadvertently given us a checklist for being a visionary. Now it’s up to us to make use of it.

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