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The Inmates are Running the Asylum

Alan Cooper

A very readable screed about why most software sucks and what people in the softtware business can do about it. It's more than "pay attention to the user." To produce great software, one needs to understand the psyche of the software engineer and the current (dysfunctional) process of creating software.

I learned a lot from this book and enjoyed Cooper's analogies.

  • What do you get when you cross a computer with a warship?
  • Eating soupe with a fork
  • Teaching dogs to be cats

If you manage a software business, read this book.

User-centered design

"While marketing, engineering, and management wrangle over which features will make the final ship date, the unlucky folks who will have to use the product aren't even at the table. The result? Users who simply want to write a letter or balance their checkbook have to struggle with feature-laden software that makes them jump through hoops to get anything accomplished."

In its generic form, "User-centered design is a discipline and methodology of design devoted to understanding users (typically through anthropological and cognitive science methods), turning that understanding into a definition of the users' problems (through such techniques as creating personae, scenarios, and task analysis), and then going through a highly iterative design process (with low-fidelity prototypes and lots of user testing/feedback), to polish off the architecture/blueprint of a product before engineering/implementation begins." --Peter Merholz

Software today is like the dancing bear a fellow brings to the town square to perform. It's not that the bear is a great dancer. The amazing thing is that the bear dances at all.

"Power user" = an apologist, enthusiasts who like the challenge

"Computer literate user" = experienced enough to put up with extreme crap

"Naive user" = stupid, incompetent user

The problem with prototyping: managers can't tell the difference between scaffolding and a stone wall.

The Wisdom of Alan Cooper

"Interactive products need to be designed by interaction designers instead of by software engineers."

"The number-one goal of all computer users is to not feel stupid."

According to Cooper, programmers are unlike the rest of us because they:

  • trade simplicity for control
  • exchange success for understanding
  • focus on the possible to the exclusion of the probable
  • act like jocks


ideas from Cooper's earlier book

Don't hamper primary markets by serving secondary markets.

No matter how cool your interface is, less of it would be better.

Good user interfaces are invisible.

Prepare for the probable case. Hide the ejector seat levers.

If it's worth asking the user, it's worth the program remembering.

No crisis inside a computer is worth humiliating a human.

Imagine users as very intelligent but very busy.


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