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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 – Feb 24 2004


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Sams Publishing; 2 edition (Feb. 24 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0672326140
  • ISBN-13: 978-0672326141
  • Product Dimensions: 15.4 x 1.8 x 23.2 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 281 g
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (113 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #61,862 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

Product Description

From Amazon

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

3.9 out of 5 stars

Most helpful customer reviews

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By pilgrimsprogproj on Feb. 20 2003
Format: Hardcover
I like Alan Cooper. He is entertaining, thoughtful and has numerous amusing anecdotes and analogies. He is a "voice sounding in the wilderness" in the software community about usability. Unfortunately, I think his point is lost somewhat in the marketing message and sensationalism of this book. Who is the book written for - the software developer or the frustrated user? The first chapter sounds like a Luddite rebellion against computers. It is hard to imagine the person writing that chapter as a computer professional. Using the analogy of a secretary who doesn't know how to save files to a folder as an example of poor design is blaming the programmer for poor training. True, software is often developed by programmers who barely get real requirements, develop in a vacuum and then force feed the end result to the user. And ironically, Alan Cooper invented Visual Basic, which ushered in Rapid Application Development (RAD) programming (good!) but adds the tendency for quick prototype demos to get shipped as "Version 1.0" because the CEO or CIO says,"hey it works now" (bad!).
These shortcomings are not solved by adding a layer of another design person partially disconnected from the user, or making the screen prettier. It is by adapting the Extreme Programming/Agile programming methods of including the user in everything from design to testing, so the software reflects how the user does business.
I still liked the book, just not clear on the message.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Dave P. on July 8 2002
Format: Hardcover
From the first page this book shows itself to be the product of a lot of anger and not much thought or fact. The example of the American Airlines crash is glib and incorrect - 'pilot error' has not been given as a reason for a crash in many years. Similar problems occur thoughout the book - developers are lying when they say that something is technically difficult, using a knob rather than buttons is the answer to everything, design without regard to cost is the only way to do it. There are some ideas there but anything by Donald Norman is better. Like Clifford Stoll in "High tech Heretic" the author mistakes opinion for fact, and generalises with abandon. Yes, products are often poorly designed but all products are designed within constraints and ignoring them does not negate them.
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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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