Review: The Inmates Are Running The Asylum

It was with some trepidation that I picked up The Inmates Are Running The Asylum by Alan Cooper . I think I'd heard a radio bit on the book that made me very interested, and I'm always looking for ways to help designers improve the design process.

But then I ran across an interview that showed Cooper's work to be uneven, at best. This, unfortunately, is my experience with the book as a whole. Overall, the book comes across as a valiant effort to regurgitate the best writing in design theory, but as told by one of those awful "designers" that we, as programmers, have had to recover project after project from.

We start with the obligatory airplane computer interface horror story, similar to any number of cautionary tales we've read in the RISKS digest over the years, the usual "the computer was at fault because the pilot didn't understand it". This is a perfectly reasonable interpretation, and one that we see repeated over and over again; alas Coopers analysis of the problem only derails his later arguments about defaults and actions.

He also writes as someone not familiar with the tools available. On page 61 he claims "yet not a single email program available today treats email messages as part of a sequence." Now I haven't used Outlook, but I can only assume that he's limiting himself to some Microsoft product when he makes that statement, because nearly ever email client within reach of me (except for the simplest Un*x "mail" command, most often invoked only by higher level applications) has some ability to thread either by subject or by message ID references. I rarely use them that way, but that's a different argument.

In chapter 1 he complains that the way Microsoft Word remembers the user's preferences confuses novices, then he spends chapter 4 ranting about how software doesn't remember the user's selections.

"Modern install programs are hardly better. If they run out room (sic), they might issue an error message, but then would stop running, forgetting all the settings you have meticulously keyed in. If you clear out some space on your hard disk and run the install again, the first thing it does is ask you all those questions again, instead of remembering what you keyed in."

Okay, just for giggles, let's ask the obvious question: If the computer has run out of hard disk space, where the hell do you expect us to save those settings? It is precisely the nebulous pronouncements to "make it better" without any understanding of the tradeoffs of the underlying technology that programmers have been fighting against for years.

The book goes on with varying levels of usefulness. His reasoning for constructing specific example users contains some of the best arguments for using narrative in design that I've run across. But he balances this with the same old metaphors of sewing parachutes after exiting the aircraft and tales of the Post-Ittm that we've been reading for longer than I've had a profession.

He critiques some truly awful designs with relatively insightful comments, and then goes on to use the term "Power User" with a straight face. Worse, he uses it to describe someone computer literate, a usage I haven't seen since PC Magazine tried to foist the term off on us in the '80s, about a month before it became synonymous with the executive who's secretary had more computing power than the entire engineering department....

If you need a refresher on design, go reread The Psychology/Design of Everyday Things and your favorite Tufte book. If you feel the need to be sold on a design firm, pick a URL at random, you'll get a better argument. Unfortunately, The Inmates Are Running The Asylum accomplishes neither task as effectively.

Monday, April 17th, 2000