- 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: 4.1 out of 5 stars See all reviews (189 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #62,717 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity 1st Edition
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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
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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Top Customer Reviews
I also don't think he makes it clear enough that he's not proposing doing *fewer* features to make products simpler and easier to use, he's talking about doing *different* features. For example, he argues that software should not be so lazy; it should stop making the user do work that the computer is better suited to doing (e.g. remembering where they put files), and it should stop making users go through the same steps over and over again, as if it were the first time they had ever met this user. He argues that "Do you really mean it?" popups are evil (and I couldn't agree more - as most of my coworkers know), and instead it should be easy to undo anything, so it's not so catastrophic to do something you didn't meant to do. I agree with all that, but of course building a reasonable "undo" mechanism is a very complex feature. To cure the "How could you possibly want to quit my ever-so-important application?" popup syndrome, it would be much better to make the software very fast to start up, and to have it come back in exactly the state you left it in, so that quitting when you didn't mean to is not a problem. All of this is well worth doing, but it is lots of engineering work; it's another feature. I'm all for shifting engineer resources to these features instead of the "but somebody *might* want to do this obscure thing" features, but it should be clear that this is not doing fewer features, it's doing different ones, ones that help smooth the user's interaction with the software. Cooper seems to imply that engineers are so lazy that they don't want to do these features, but most engineers work very hard and care about their product. The key is to make it clear why doing this feature right will make such a big difference to the product. My experience has been that the more you understand the work involved in doing a feature, the better you can work with engineers. Not only can you better trade off engineering effort for user benefit, but engineers respect you for understanding what you're asking.
Having said all that, I can't deny that I finished this book with some very specific ideas about improving my own designs, and a renewed sense of the importance of what I do. I just wish Cooper could have articulated the case without putting interaction designers "on a throne."
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). The other half are so non-technical that they're at the mercy of the coders, who are free to decide which features are most important, which will take too long, and ultimately, which will or won't make the cut for the next release. Coders ARE driving this bus, if occasionally from the back seat, and they need to take responsibility for what they produce-and be humble enough to admit that an indispensable part of the development process (interface/interaction design) is beyond their abilities.
That said, Cooper's writing style itself is less than perfect. He presents many compelling case histories, but at times he seems to lean too heavily on insider stories, as if showing off his contacts and expertise in the industry. And, of course, Cooper is far too much in love with his "dancing bear" metaphor; long before you've reached the halfway point, you'll be muttering, "One page...just ONE page without a `dancing bearware' reference, PLEASE! That's all I ask!"
But the messages and lessons in this book are too important to ignore. As Cooper tries to remind us, it is everyday users-not the power users, not even the "computer literate"-who are the core audience. They're the ones you have to design for: a successful interaction design, rather than a burgeoning list of clever features, is what will determine your product's success or failure.
I've been saying for years, if someone writes an OS with reasonable manners, Apple and MS will be out of business instantly. Within a couple of years, they'll be as memorable as Lotus, Borland, Novell, and the long list of companies headed and staffed by arrogant, uncivilized geek children who have disappeared into the wash of ghost corporations. Cooper advocates a programming style that puts the users first and the programmer's utility processes dead last. No more "beachball of death" or "wandering hourglass" crap while the programmers take over the computer to do their piddly maintenance. No more waiting for these children to give us back our "tool" while they play around with pointless crap. No more answer "yes" and "yes, I really want to do this" repeatedly until the comp0uter actually does the task we've asked it to do.
This is a great book for anyone who wants to be good at the job of writing computer software or firmware. For the rest of the children playing with computers, it's just irritating.