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