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The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity Paperback – March 5, 2004

ISBN-13: 978-0672326141 ISBN-10: 0672326140 Edition: 1st
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

The recurring metaphor in The Inmates are Running the Asylum is that of the dancing bear--the circus bear that shuffles clumsily for the amusement of the audience. Such bears, says author Alan Cooper, don't dance well, as everyone at the circus can see. What amazes the crowd is that the bear dances at all. Cooper argues that technology (videocassette recorders, car alarms, most software applications for personal computers) consists largely of dancing bears--pieces that work, but not at all well. He goes on to say that this is more often than not the fault of poorly designed user interfaces, and he makes a good argument that way too many devices (perhaps as a result of the designers' subconscious wish to bully the people who tormented them as children) ask too much of their users. Too many systems (like the famous unprogrammable VCR) make their users feel stupid when they can't get the job done.

Cooper, who designed Visual Basic (the programming environment Microsoft promotes for the purpose of creating good user interfaces), indulges in too much name-dropping and self-congratulation (Cooper attributes the quote, "How did you do that?" to Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, upon looking at one of Cooper's creations)--but this appears to be de rigueur in books about the software industry. But those asides are minor. More valuable is the discourse about software design and implementation ("[O]bject orientation divides the 1000-brick tower into 10 100-brick towers."). Read this book for an idea of what's wrong with UI design. --David Wall

Topics covered: User interfaces--good ones and bad ones--and where they come from. Also, how to improve the ones you create.

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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Sams - Pearson Education; 1 edition (March 5, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0672326140
  • ISBN-13: 978-0672326141
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.8 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (173 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #55,736 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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.

Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

77 of 84 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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72 of 88 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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