The Inmates Are Running the Asylum — Alan Cooper

Friday, 30 July 2010

The Inmates Are Running the AsylumThis is a passionate polemic on the dark side of rampant software technology. But it also shows a way out, and that is (cue celestial choirs) Interaction Design.

Cooper explains why a lot of modern software (and the devices it runs on) is hard to use. He lays the blame largely at the feet of software developers and their perverse mindset and habits. He mentions Po Bronson’s funny-because-true characterisation of software developers, which includes;

  • They’ll keep fixing what’s not broken until it’s broken
  • “I didn’t answer incorrectly, you just asked the wrong question”

I heard Jared Spool talk about this book recently. Apart from calling it a classic, he said that he was uneasy about its “us versus them” undercurrent. I agree — Cooper presents caricatures of software developers and says that the interaction designers need to ride in on a white horse and rescue the project from these strange deluded people. But developers generally are not that bad! Maybe things were worse 12 years ago when he was writing the book, though I was a developer then and I didn’t encounter such extreme people. Maybe I’ve just been lucky.

I do like Cooper’s focus on goal-directed design. Don’t focus on people’s tasks — instead look at their goals. You may be able to come up with a different set of tasks that allow people to achieve their goals more easily. And don’t think that giving people more choice makes things easier! “Choices are not all that desirable, and being offered them is not a benefit, but an ordeal.” Barry Schwartz has explored this idea more fully in his excellent book The Paradox of Choice.

I also liked the subtle analysis of Microsoft Explorapedia — a product that shipped on-time and made money, but still should be considered a failure. It failed because it was much less usable than the paper encyclopedia it was meant to replace. I think it’s useful to draw this distinction between a product that succeeds in making money, and a product that succeeds in actually being good.

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