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The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity (2nd Edition) [Paperback]

Alan Cooper
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (113 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Feb. 24 2004 0672326140 978-0672326141 2

Imagine, at a terrifyingly aggressive rate, everything you regularly use is being equipped with computer technology. Think about your phone, cameras, cars-everything-being automated and programmed by people who in their rush to accept the many benefits of the silicon chip, have abdicated their responsibility to make these products easy to use. The Inmates Are Running the Asylum argues that the business executives who make the decisions to develop these products are not the ones in control of the technology used to create them. Insightful and entertaining, The Inmates Are Running the Asylum uses the author's experiences in corporate America to illustrate how talented people continuously design bad software-based products and why we need technology to work the way average people think. Somewhere out there is a happy medium that makes these types of products both user and bottom-line friendly; this book discusses why we need to quickly find that medium.


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In this book about the darker side of technology's impact on our lives, Alan Cooper begins by explaining that unlike other devices throughout history, computers have a "meta function:" an unwanted, unforeseen option that users may accidentally invoke with what they thought was a normal keystroke. Cooper details many of these meta functions to explain his central thesis: programmers need to seriously reevaluate the many user-hostile concepts deeply embedded within the software development process.

Rather than provide users with a straightforward set of options, programmers often pile on the bells and whistles and ignore or deprioritize lingering bugs. For the average user, increased functionality is a great burden, adding to the recurrent chorus that plays, "computers are hard, mysterious, unwieldy things." (An average user, Cooper asserts, who doesn't think that way or who has memorized all the esoteric commands and now lords it over others, has simply been desensitized by too many years of badly designed software.)

Cooper's writing style is often overblown, with a pantheon of cutesy terminology (i.e., "dancing bearware") and insider back-patting. (When presenting software to Bill Gates, he reports that Gates replied: "How did you do that?" to which he writes, "I love stumping Bill!") More seriously, he is also unable to see beyond software development's importance--a sin he accuses programmers of throughout the book.

Even with that in mind, the central questions Cooper asks are too important to ignore: Are we making users happier? Are we improving the process by which they get work done? Are we making their work hours more effective? Cooper looks to programmers, business managers, and what he calls "interaction designers" to question current assumptions and mindsets. Plainly, he asserts that the goal of computer usage should be "not to make anyone feel stupid." Our distance from that goal reinforces the need to rethink entrenched priorities in software planning. --Jennifer Buckendorff --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From the Back Cover

Imagine, at a terrifyingly aggressive rate, everything you regularly use is being equipped with computer technology. Think about your phone, cameras, cars-everything-being automated and programmed by people who in their rush to accept the many benefits of the silicon chip, have abdicated their responsibility to make these products easy to use. The Inmates Are Running the Asylum argues that the business executives who make the decisions to develop these products are not the ones in control of the technology used to create them. Insightful and entertaining, The Inmates Are Running the Asylum uses the author's experiences in corporate America to illustrate how talented people continuously design bad software-based products and why we need technology to work the way average people think. Somewhere out there is a happy medium that makes these types of products both user and bottom-line friendly; this book discusses why we need to quickly find that medium.


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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Say You Want a Revolution... June 23 2004
Format:Paperback
I found myself really getting into Cooper's book as I read it. He's an easy writer to read. He keeps things interesting with all sorts of anecdotes and experiences, and he describes them with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

That's not to say that he isn't serious about what he has to say... clearly, he is very serious. In describing the difference between a Designer and a Developer, and even in more detail when contrasting a Visual Designer and an Interaction Designer, he makes clear just how important this subject is, and how the differences he is talking about can determine the process by which a piece of software or application comes together, and the success of the final product. His obvious frustrations with the roadblocks to effective user-focused design should be understood by anyone involved in the design process.

The pinnacle of the book, for me, came in the middle. At the end of Part 3 ("Eating Soup with a Fork" -- great title), he discusses the relationship between humans and technology. He says something so simple that it should have been obvious, but it's really a fairly major shift in perception from what many people think. He talks about the assumption that technology is dehumanizing here:

"It doesn't require sophisticated tools to dehumanize your fellow humans -- a glance or a kick does it as well. It is not technology that is dehumanizing. It is the technologists, or the processes that technologists use, that create dehumanizing products."

This is important to what Cooper is trying to say in "Inmates" in so many ways. The theme of the book throughout seemed to be that interaction design is only as friendly, or as UN-friendly, as people make it.
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Format:Hardcover
It's worth reading this book -- even despite the painful tone he often takes -- just to pick up on the ideas of creating concrete personas and how you use them to develop your product. We do that today at Microsoft (at least in Developer Tools), and it's a highly successful way of not only building a good product, but also in helping hundreds of developers understand why a feature is 'in' or 'out', no matter how much they might like it personally.
It's also mentioned quickly, but the idea of how much work customers are willing to do for an amount of benefit can affect your designs for the better as well. Fundamentally, you should add value with no documentation and no setup -- if somebody paid money, they should feel rewarded as soon as they start to use your application. Then, after they want to do new things, you can require more work of them to do it. However, it should never be more work than the benefit that they derive! This is an important lesson that, say, most media player application writers would be advised to learn...
Of course, as many other reviewers have pointed out, it might have been nice if he had created some personas for who his readers were. I doubt that any of them would have had a goal of being preached to.
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Format:Hardcover
This book actually starts out nicely up until the point where it turns into a high-pitched whine about everything that the author hates. The content is highly subjective, full of cliches such as "what do you get when you cross a computer and an alarm clock" or constant reptitious nags about why engineers are incompetent when it comes to things that matter. It is laughable to think that an engineer-turn-interaction-designer would come to hate so much what he used to be. On the positive side, the book can be considered a slight improvement from some of the things we had seen from this author in the past (Visual Basic being one i.e. a programming language for minimalists -- almost never used for serious projects in the software industry and to most people utterly useless)
Just as the arugument used in the book to say that bad user interaction design stems from letting the engineers (or according to the book's confusing terminology "apologists" or non-solution-oriented people) control dedcision making processes, the same can be said of the overly simplistic often vague interpretations of the world given by the people highly praised in the book (referred to as "survivors"). As can be seen from the first few chapters in the book, the book speculates about things and provides no real facts or knowledge. Perhaps some research notes or real life cases would help.
I would suggest looking for a more authorative source of what constitutes a good user design if you are looking to learn more on this subject. Find an author with more academic and industry backing.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A wakeup call for the software industry Sept. 25 2003
Format:Hardcover
This book is written for two audiences. The frustrated computer user will enjoy the early chapters with its anecdotes about computers failing to meet human needs. The rest of the book is for software managers and professionals who want to be change agents in the industry.
The problem, says Cooper, is that users and programmers think very differently. Users just want to accomplish a task, and have no interest in understanding how the computer works. Programmers want and need to understand the computer on a deep level, and find it hard to design software to meet the needs of people who don't.
Cooper says we need to abandon the idea that there are "power users" and "naive users". Most users are in fact very smart people who just don't think like computers. Cooper's solution is to use 'personas', made up users intended to represent real users with very specific goals, and to design software to meet only those specific users' goals. Design must occur before any code is written, otherwise it is too late.
This isn't a manual on how to use Cooper's goal oriented design methods, but after reading this book it is hard not to be convinced that such methods, or equally radical ones, are needed. Cooper may not have all the answers, but he surely has part of the answer, and is asking all the right questions.
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Most recent customer reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars Writen for managers of computer programmers
The book does a fair job of pointing out the problems with the complexity of modern technology, and offers some administrative solutions that have worked for the author as a... Read more
Published on Aug. 7 2010 by Gord McKenna
1.0 out of 5 stars A very dangerous guide for any organization
I work for a large computer company that makes software. This book was instrumental in creating and organizing our human interface engineering department. Read more
Published on Feb. 17 2004
5.0 out of 5 stars You're either part of the problem or part of the solution
Cooper gets it. He understands that computers and electronics are designed by engineeers, for engineers. But what if you want to design something for the masses? Read more
Published on Dec 24 2003 by Gregory Glockner
4.0 out of 5 stars A philosophy, not a terse checklist for design
I kept thinking "we think alike"; not about interaction design per se - the topic of this book - but an evangelistic passion and the desire to somehow convey the deep... Read more
Published on May 29 2003 by R. Jones
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful
Super book. I've been involved on the business side of web, portal and content management software projects for many years; this is the best argument on the market for bringing... Read more
Published on May 8 2003 by Alden Globe
2.0 out of 5 stars Ho hum. Should be half this thick.
I found I really had to force myself to finish reading this book. The core concepts are covered in the first half of the book, albeit in a rather drawn out fashion, and the rest is... Read more
Published on April 30 2003 by Ray Hatfield
3.0 out of 5 stars The point was lost somewhere
I like Alan Cooper. He is entertaining, thoughtful and has numerous amusing anecdotes and analogies. Read more
Published on Feb. 20 2003 by pilgrimsprogproj
4.0 out of 5 stars The Hard Truth
This is a good book that i read last month. I wanted to write it but thanks that Alan did it. so i think this is a common problem felt by all usability engineers. Read more
Published on Feb. 12 2003 by sameer chavan
4.0 out of 5 stars Good reminder of the tech tunnel vision we get...
Alan Cooper has some great points about how difficult high-tech products can be and particularly how they don't need to be that way. Read more
Published on Oct. 5 2002 by Jana Eggers
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