The Inmates Are Running the Asylum (Book review)

The title doesn’t reveal it, but this is a book about interaction design, or more specifically the absence of interaction design. It is often the case, especially in the software and Web industries, that products (applications or websites) are created seemingly without anyone actually taking the time to consider how people will use them.

Just like building a house without proper planning and no blueprints - or blueprints that the builders don’t really care about - won’t lead to a stable house, many software based products suffer greatly from the lack of planning and interaction design.

In this book Alan Cooper (the “Father of Visual Basic”) argues that spending much more time and money on usability and interaction design before even starting to think about what the product will look like or how to program it will produce much better results. It sounds like common sense, and to me it is. But many people don’t feel that way.

If you read other reviews of this book you will find that there are many who disagree with what Cooper says, in all likelyhood because they feel insulted by the generalisations he makes about programmers and graphic designers. I think you need to bring your humour along before reading this book if you are a back-end programmer or a graphic designer. Sure, he does seem serious about what he says, but I get the feeling that lots of it is written in a tongue-in-cheek way. I recognised my own behaviour in many of his descriptions of programmers making decisions that make their life easier instead of making the user’s life easier.

In the Web industry we often see problems caused by graphic design or back-end programming taking place before any in-depth analysis of how people will use the site or application has been done. Even huge projects that have both the time and the budget to do proper research and plan interaction design often do not. Programmers are eager to get started coding, graphic designers want to launch Photoshop and start designing, and management thinks it makes sense to let them start. Interaction design, if mentioned at all, is seen as interface design or decoration to be added at the end of the project, when it is already too late.

Cooper talks a lot about how projects are run by technologists or engineers, leading to a product that is designed around technical possibilities or constraints instead of user goals. That does happen, but I find that just as often, visual designers are the ones who are allowed to run the show, leading to a pretty but hard-to-use product.

The solution according to Cooper is to first design (design how the product will be used, not visual or graphic design), then program, then perform user and bug testing, then tweak. Repeat until done. I’m not sure exactly where visual design fits in the process, but I would put it after interaction design, before programming.

The Inmates Are Running the Asylum is a very entertaining and eye-opening read. It is more of an eye-opener and an introduction to interaction design than a checklist or a how-to book, but it is an important book that I highly recommend.

Details for The Inmates Are Running the Asylum
Author: Alan Cooper
ISBN: 0672326140

Posted on January 15, 2007 in Reviews, Usability


  1. Well, I can certainly relate to what Alan writes, having read all but the last chapter at this point. As an interface programmer with the same interest in accessibility as Roger, I had to fight with flash designers more than once at Hyper Island. Very few people there care for usability and accessibility and instead keep focusing on the surface.

  2. This is one of my favourites. This book and Norman’s “The design of everyday things” indeed were eye-openers for me.

  3. Not only does this book and the one mentioned by Rimantas open your eyes, they are both ones I re-read often. When I get too deep in over-thinking I read my favorite chapters selectively and it grounds me back to realizing where I should focus my energy.

    Both these books are a must read for designers of any discipline.

  4. Really, often I see the flash designers putting the enchanting of the user, looking at all those things sparking and shining, over the usability and interaction design. Is also often for me to enter a beautiful site, and think how goodlooking it is, enchant myself with all those beautiful flashes and effects, and when it comes to the product, the content by itself, I can’t find what i’m looking for - this shows me a weak project, focus on claiming for the attention, and not keeping the user on the website, not giving him the options to enjoy everything over the product.

    “I recognised my own behaviour in many of his descriptions of programmers making decisions that make their life easier instead of making the user’s life easier.” Yeah, I pretty much think that happens to us all sometimes. I can recognize myself too :P

    The book seems really interesting!!

  5. January 16, 2007 by Stephen

    Cooper’s other book, “About Face 2.0: The Essentials of Interaction Design” is also an excellent book. It is more an in depth how-to for interaction design rather than an introduction, however.

    I haven’t read “The Inmates are Running the Asylum” but I imagine it’s similar to Dan Saffer’s intro to interaction design book, “Designing for Interaction.”

    I think interaction designers, programmers, graphic designers and the plethora of related fields need to make sure we get along during the process of building a product. As I see it, the product is only as strong as its weakest link.

  6. This book really was an eye-opener for me as well. Especially when it comes to design decisions based on what’s easier for me to program instead of what’s best for the end user.

    I highly recommend this book to anyone involved in website or software projects.

    Great review btw. :-)

  7. January 16, 2007 by Giorgio

    An interview with Alan Cooper and Kent Beck about differences between interaction design and XP (agile programming).

  8. ‘Personas’ introduced in the book and further developed by Alan are a powerful design tool. Not just for web sites, for example I understand that the Orca screen reader uses them. I’m using them in Jambu too. Here’s a good introduction to using them.

  9. I agree it’s a wonderful book. Especially the parts on what happens when you cross a computer with different other artefacts (clocks, airplanes etc). And the discussion about programmer psychology. I wrote this review a couple of years ago (in Swedish) but the book is still as interesting as when it was published.

  10. The metaphor of ‘pouring concrete’ really stuck with me after reading this book. The gist of it was: You don’t pour concrete and then shape it, that doesn’t make sense. First you lay out the design.

    However, reading about it is one thing, practicing is another. About a year after I read this book I found myself pouring concrete before I did the design, and what do you know… it failed. For my next project, I did the reverse, and it succeeded. It’s a fantastic book.

  11. January 17, 2007 by Zephyr

    It’s a great book, my favorite. Sure, he doesn’t hold back when it comes to criticism of common software development practices, but I think he gives developers plenty of praise too - for doing the complex and taxing job of programming, that is, not for designing the UI.

  12. This isn’t about Microsoft Developers again is it? ;)

  13. Very nice and click…on my amazon list :-) These bad practices are part of web and software development in general - sad, but true. I am currently part of a project, where the backend-developers started coding right away, before even somebody thought about wireframes, specs or - god almighty - visual design mock-ups. In any industry, from automotive to whatever, you first need to think about it, then design it and then develop it - to have a well thought-through product in the end. And no matter how many people in your company are eager to start developing or designing right away - at least you should be the one that says: “Hey! Hold your horses! What the heck are you doing? Could we please think that through first!”.

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