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

by Alan Cooper
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (168 customer reviews)

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Book Description

March 5, 2004 0672326140 978-0672326141 1

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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The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity + About Face 3: The Essentials of Interaction Design + Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, 2nd Edition
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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.

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: 9.3 x 6.1 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (168 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #135,287 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
71 of 77 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Useful ideas but infuriatingly arrogant 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
4.0 out of 5 stars Great Ideas, Not Always Well Presented 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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52 of 63 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great content, but leave the ego behind! April 1, 2002
Format:Hardcover
Had I written this review after the first 125 pages of the book, I would have easily given it five stars. Alan Cooper is well spoken, well written, and he has the knowledge, the innovation, and the experience to enlighten and entertain.
Alan's interaction design philosophy makes a lot of sense. I've since redesigned a system that had just left the design phase, so I could follow the guidelines in this book. And they helped a great deal--I'm much more comfortable with the product.
The book fell apart in the last 100 pages, however. 100 pages of text could have easily been condensed to 20, and the pages there were fueled by ego and a business agenda. Who can blame him? "Let he who is without sin. . ." Too much anecdotal evidence of past consulting assignments where the clients were unenlightened, arrogant, simple, pompous, blah, blah. We've all had those experiences, but the book was used as Alan's last word, in a classic passive aggressive maneuver that he admonishes in his very text. I suspect that this book is given to prospective clients to help break down sales barriers.
That being said--read the book! I have a new design technique, and a head full of fantastic sound bites I can spit out at will. Definitely worth the price of admission.
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33 of 39 people found the following review helpful
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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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars It's a classic read for a reason
Great insight and interesting writing. Being published quite a while ago it's still very relevant and helpful. I wish more people in the industry would read it.
Published 8 days ago by Mykola Bespaliuk
4.0 out of 5 stars Compelling yet questionable
I've checked on positive examples given in the book: none of them made it big in the end, including Alan Cooper's own firm. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Kallikanzarid
5.0 out of 5 stars Must read for anyone designing software, apps or websites
Alan cooper has great stories to tell of how the development process works and why so many go wrong that anyone working in the tech industry will instantly be able to relate to and... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Will Pringle
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Book for Understanding Challenges of Designing User Friendly...
While I agree with many things Alan Cooper says about the challenges of designing user friendly technologies for normal end users, I think his attitude is a bit pessimistic about... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Lorne Bailey
3.0 out of 5 stars Good effort could have been better
This book was helpful for me in some ways as a UX interactive designer. The book does a good job at spotlighting the personalities of software engineers and programmers and did an... Read more
Published 8 months ago by M. Waterman
5.0 out of 5 stars A thought provoking book
This book should be read by both, people who have earlier worked in tech roles and now moved to Product or project management roles, and by people who have been involved in product... Read more
Published 8 months ago by Chandresh
2.0 out of 5 stars The Good, the Bad, and the Clueless
I am a developer of seven years with solid experience in both front-end design and back-end code slapping. I also have a portfolio of visuals I designed to spread messages. Read more
Published 10 months ago by Sage Gerard
5.0 out of 5 stars Does the Job, Pisses off Programmers
Based on the programmer reviews of the book, I'd guess Cooper nailed his subject on the head. Programmers I've loaned the book to consistently react with "he's picking on us"... Read more
Published 11 months ago by Thomas W. Day
4.0 out of 5 stars Read it for the smart stuff, but ignore the stupid stuff
The author has a lot of important things to say about the importance of design in software, and the many ways in which good design is sabotaged by management, programmers,... Read more
Published 12 months ago by V. Shah
5.0 out of 5 stars Best book I've read on softare design
May be even one of the more entertaining books of all time that I've read.. a classic for sure. If you want some great advice and insight into designing software, look no further.
Published 13 months ago by its pretty meh...
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