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The Inmates Are Running the Asylum Hardcover – March 23, 1999

ISBN-13: 978-0672316494 ISBN-10: 0672316498 Edition: 1st

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Sams; 1 edition (March 23, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0672316498
  • ISBN-13: 978-0672316494
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (173 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #468,732 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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

From the Back Cover

The Inmates are Running the Asylum argues that, despite appearances, business executives are simply not the ones in control of the high-tech industry. They have inadvertently put programmers and engineers in charge, leading to products and processes that waste huge amounts of money, squander customer loyalty, and erode competitive advantage. They have let the inmates run the asylum. Alan Cooper offers a provocative, insightful and entertaining explanation of how talented people continuously design bad software-based products. More importantly, he uses his own work with companies big and small to show how to harness those talents to create products that will both thrill their users and grow the bottom line.

Customer Reviews

Had I written this review after the first 125 pages of the book, I would have easily given it five stars.
Shaun W. Taylor
The real culprits in Cooper's book are the programmers and engineers who design products to work their way as opposed to the best way.
Theresa M. Flynn, Doctoral Student, Pepperdine University
One histrionic account describes how he cannot buy a VCR that lets him record shows by setting time with a knob.
E. PEPKE

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

76 of 83 people found the following review helpful By Ellen Isaacs on July 14, 2000
Format: Hardcover
The Inmates are Running the Asylum makes the business case for interaction designers playing a central role in the development of technology products. It starts by providing examples of technology that is difficult, frustrating, humiliating, and even dangerous to use. Cooper argues that, although people have gotten used to being humiliated by technology, it doesn't have to be this way. His claim is that most technology, especially software, is designed by engineers who think differently than non-technical people: they enjoy being challenged by difficult problems and they are trained to think in terms of "edge cases" rather than on the common case. Thus when engineers design software, they tend to create products with far too many neat features that clutter the interface and make it difficult to do the simpler tasks. In the second part of the book, Cooper describes an approach that he and his design firm uses to simplify products and keep them focused on the users' needs, eliminating or hiding more complex features that few people use. He gives some specific and compelling examples of how they took a different approach to an interesting design problem and keep the product simple while still being powerful. He makes the case that you can grab a market with powerful, feature-rich, complex software that is frustrating to use, but you don't build customer loyalty that way; as soon as a well-designed version of that product comes along, your customers will defect. If you delight the user with your products, on the other hand, you will engender deep loyalty that will help see you through some poor business decisions. His primary example of this is the fanatical loyalty that Apple garners from its users, compared with the rage that Windows users feel toward Microsoft.Read more ›
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41 of 48 people found the following review helpful By Brian Curtis on July 3, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The culture of software development is changing, but grudgingly. The short-sighted notion "It's better to be first with something bad than second with something perfect" has been discredited after too long a reign as the New Paradigm of the Information Age ("It's brilliant because it's counter-intuitive!"), and instead has been exposed for what it is: bad business and a lousy way to treat customers. Alan Cooper's book helps make sense of things as software developers, after decades of coding for each other, are forced to begin acknowledging the cold and strange outside world of Real Life Users.
Cooper's writing is generally clear and easy to follow. He documents his points well and uses numerous true-to-life examples to illustrate the concepts. The ATM analysis, for example, is both effective and memorabl: Why DOES the ATM list account types you don't have, permitting an invalid selection? Why can't you return to a previous screen to correct mistakes, instead of starting over from scratch? Why doesn't the system give you an error message that helps you understand the problem, rather than "Unable to complete transaction"? No one even bothers to ask these questions, Cooper points out, because we've accepted the default structure of ATM screens--which were created for the convenience of coders and system engineers, rather than users.
Cooper also performs a valuable service in demolishing that old standby programmers' excuse: "We don't call any of the shots-it's all management's fault!" Bull. Half the managers in the computer industry are former coders themselves (and laboring under an outmoded and faulty mental model of how software development must occur, by the way).
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34 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer VINE VOICE on January 30, 2004
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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69 of 85 people found the following review helpful By E. PEPKE on June 21, 2001
Format: Hardcover
I have been passionately interested in usability issues and ways to improve them for a quarter century. I read all that I can on the subject to gain insight into how to make things better. This book, however, fails miserably.
It is about 50% personal exorcism, projected onto others, of his own former self. It is about 50% advertisement for the kind of consultant he now stylizes himself as. It is 100% the kind of book on usability you would expect the "Father of Visual Basic" to produce.
There is some good information in this book, which would normally merit a rating of two or three stars. However, by its polemical tone, it diverts attention away from really good books by such authors as Donald Norman and Jef Raskin, and, for that matter, Cooper's own _About Face_, which is quite good.
If you hate unusable products and are looking for nice, easy scapegoats to be angry about, this will be an enjoyable read. If, however, you are interested in the actual reasons that products are poorly usable or are interested in how to improve the world, this book is worse than useless.
One histrionic account describes how he cannot buy a VCR that lets him record shows by setting time with a knob. This would be excusable except for the fact that, the year this book was published, a remote control was being sold that did exactly that, and it recieved saturation advertising on television. The problem is that nobody bought it. Demand was so poor that it isn't made any more, and no sales staff I have spoken with has remembered anyone ever asking for such a device.
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More About the Author

For over 30 years, Alan Cooper has been a pioneer of the modern computing era. His groundbreaking work in software design and construction has influenced a generation of programmers and business people alike and helped a generation of users embrace interaction design. He is best known as the "Father of Visual Basic" and is the founder of Cooper, a leading interaction design consultancy.