Review: The Inmates are Running the Asylum

I have seen Alan Cooper’s book The Inmates Are Running The Asylum recommended many places and I finally got around to read it myself.

Overall I liked the book. It is not too long and Alan Cooper is a really good and entertaining writer. However, Alan Cooper spends almost half the book ranting over programmers at large and how bad programmers are at designing user interfaces. But if you are able to take the excessive ranting as entertaining in the style of old-school stand-up comedy (at least, that is how I took it) then Alan Cooper offers some good insights.

The main insights I took with me from the book are:

  • Design Matters Design is one of the pillars of what make users (customers) lust for you product and makes them super-loyal. Design does not relate solely to visual design but also interaction design. The prime example of a master of design is Apple. An other example is Palm PDAs, for years they were technically behind the Windows CE based PDAs both in hardware and software capabilities. Still, the Palms were able to sit on 70% of the market or so. Mainly because the interaction design on the Palms was much better designed. (I don’t know the current status of the PDA market, as I no longer use a PDA.)
  • Homo Logicus Programmers are different from most “normal” people, so different that they are a different species than Homo sapiens. One of the main traits of Homo Logicus is that they wants control, and accepts complexity as trade-off, whereas Homo sapiens wants simplicity, and accepts less control as a trade-off. I think that this is important to remember as a Homo logicus when you make programs for Homo sapiens.
  • Goal-Directed Design and Personas For me, the most useful part of the book is that Alan Cooper describe a method for making good interaction design. Part of this method is that you should define a set of Personas who are the ones you design the program for, usually there will be just one main persona for which you optimise your design. Personas are fictive persons often precisely described: age, gender, profession, favourite ice-cream flavor, etc.. Personas makes perfect sense to me. Just as most (non-fiction?) writers write to a specific person to make the writing process easier and to write to a specific person also gives better results. The goal-directed part means that the design should take offset in the Personas’ goals, not in a specific process or task. Again, this makes perfect sense. To start with a persona’s goal can lead to untraditional and better solutions. Likewise, to be goal-directed also makes it easier to make judgement call about what functionality should be (easily) available in the program. So that it is the functionality that the user needs to solve her goal which is available and not a dog’s breakfast of all the functionality in the program. Remember the Homo sapiens are in majority.
  • The Elastic User If you don’t have Personas then it extremely easy as a programmer to make “the user” elastic. This means, that sometimes you’ll take extra care and make a context sensitive help systems with carefully written pedagogical texts, for instance, because otherwise “the user” can get lost and confused. Later you decide that “the user” will want to be able to customise the colours and fonts of each individual UI element. The reason for the elasticity of “the user” is that when you don’t design for a specific persona, “the user” have to play the role as many different groups of users, and it is easy to lose track of who you are designing for.

For me these are the main insights (that I can remember now), but there are lots of more good stuff in the book and I can wholehearted recommend it.

3 thoughts on “Review: The Inmates are Running the Asylum

  1. Thanks for the review. It looks like it tries to express rather obvious things – the fact, that programmers and the rest of the human race are quite different has been mentioned to me by programmers and non-programmers alike too many times. Also, the fact that users prefer simple, but useful designs, is clear even to me, since from time to time I had to use software with too many buttons, not having a clue what 80% of them do.

    So, unless the style of the book is really funny, it’s probably not worth reading…

  2. I read the book. Its not funny, but its definitely worth the read. The book review above states the facts of situations in the software world, but Cooper also discusses why and how this has come about. Why are software often so frustrating? Why do we even bear with software that impose so much frustration in our lives? Why despite the best intentions and efforts of the programmer, software still often turns out to be not user-friendly? What is going on in the software industry often foils attempts at the design and completion of a Good software.

    Despite his tendency to slam programmers and business executives about in this book, Cooper addresses very real problems and suggests very useful alternatives in solving these problems.

    It will make you realize about issues that you have taken for granted in technology and even in life. It talks about whats not so obvious underlying the obvious. Its not all “correct” but definitely hugely enlightening and worth paying to read(for those in the software industry).

  3. @Andre Bar’yudin

    By reading your comment I conclude that you especially need to read that book. You obviously didn’t get the point…

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