- 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 (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 179 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #350,647 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Inmates Are Running the Asylum 1st Edition
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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.
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I'm a junior high teacher by trade, so I'm going to particularly recommend it to teachers. Students, just like tech consumers, come in a variety of levels of understanding. One of the biggest challenges is to cater a lesson to smart students, slow students, and all the students in between. Teachers, like programmers, like all of us, tend to assume that others' experience is similar to their own, so they plan with themselves in mind. This book helps explain how to break out of that mentality and design for everyone.
Somewhere along the line, Cooper switches gears from talking about the problems of software to talking about the problems of people. This is a logical step, but Cooper proceeds to advocate a strict hierarchy where programmers are isolated from the big picture because they, frankly, think like computers and are therefore potentially hazardous to users.
This would make sense if we lived in a world where you can assume all black people are lazy because you saw one sleeping in a hammock. Cooper's generalizations stretch to the point where he claims a developer cannot be a good designer because of the way they think. Speaking as both a designer and developer, Cooper is simply wrong about this.
What makes Cooper's book forgettable is that he is not advocating for better technology through educating the public. Rather, he is advocating better technology by pushing social roles onto people with preconceived overgeneralizations of how people think. Cooper would say to you "You are the kind of person that should... [BLANK]"
The title of my review sums up the categories of people Cooper makes up. Interaction designers and business people are good because they care about the end users, who are clueless to what the bad ol' developers are trying to do to them. While Cooper's dream for better products is noble and just, he feels that the ends justify the means.
The problems in Cooper's book are not products of developers running the world (as he insinuates), it's about communication. Managing developers and communicating user needs to different departments is a difficult, context-centric task with no set formula.
But Cooper offers a formula for how people should behave, and that is why I can't take him seriously.