“The inmates are running the asylum” by Alan Cooper

A review of Alan Cooper’s book with the subtitle: “Why high-tech products drive us crazy and how to restore the sanity”. Looking at why technological devices (and more specifically the software related to them) drives end-users nuts, makes them feel like idiots and do not consider interaction design or a clear representation of the target user during their development.

The inmates are running the asylum

During a discussion with a friend, I recommend he reads The Invisible Computer (perhaps the subject of another blog entry)… in exchange, he told me that I should read “The inmates are running the asylum” without providing me any form of additional information. The title sounded very intriguing and the content was worth reading through.

The book description on amazon.com states following:

Imagine, at a terrifyingly aggressive rate, everything you regularly use is being equipped with computer technology. Think about your phone, cameras, cars-everything-being automated and programmed by people who in their rush to accept the many benefits of the silicon chip, have abdicated their responsibility to make these products easy to use. “The Inmates Are Running the Asylum” argues that the business executives who make the decisions to develop these products are not the ones in control of the technology used to create them. Insightful and entertaining, “The Inmates Are Running the Asylum” uses the author’s experiences in corporate America to illustrate how talented people continuously design bad software-based products and why we need technology to work the way average people think. Somewhere out there is a happy medium that makes these types of products both user and bottom-line friendly; this book discusses why we need to quickly find that medium.

I’ve been working for software companies for a few years, used computers for a lot longer than that, and am computer literate to say the least. Finding my way with computers and networks is certainly something I can do with a certain ease. In Alan Cooper’s terminology, I am an apologist, i.e. someone who not only is happy with the complexity of modern computers, but is, at least in a certain form, looking for it. The other type of user are the survivors, i.e. those who make what they can with the technology they have to use every day. It’s the distinction between those who want to use a computer and those who have to use a computer redefined.

After an overview of “what do you get when you cross a computer with…” that introduces the book, Alan Cooper goes into detail about the different types of users on both sides (company and customer) and looking into who actually owns what the end user will get as a product. While I won’t go into everything covered in this book (I don’t want to write it again and if I tell everything here, why would you buy your own copy), the in-depth description of the persona concept makes a lot of sense. A persona is a representation of a typical end-user in all the possible details. This persona becomes the single focal point of all development to make sure everything that gets implemented in the product will be to this invented end-user benefit. If it doesn’t make sense for the persona, it doesn’t get into the product.

This book also goes into numerous details about Interaction Design, covering the importance of designing for pleasure, for power and for people. Alan Cooper also goes in details about who actually should own the design… as you might have guessed by now, it is not the developers :)

A few more comments about customer driven products that are worth mentioning here. If a customer asks for a feature, it seems to make sense to implement it. But at one point, implementing features and answering specific requests for customers get into the way of actually releasing a product that will focus on the needs of the persona, the true target user. The focus shifts from developing software to be more and more a consultancy working on special projects. At what point do you draw the line between a “customer requests driven” solution and a solution that is driven by the customer needs. In other words, a customer can only ask for features that he can feel the pain for, but if you don’t investigate it further, you will not be able to actually solve the pain. It’s about getting to the roots of the problem and solving them, not choosing the best color for the lipstick.

Overall, this is a very interesting book, with a lot of insightful information. As always, you cannot take everything as is, but the majority of it can bring valuable enhancements to the product development process. A must read for product managers so that the “we need this feature for that customer by that date” gets banned from their vocabulary… oh yes, that’s right, I am a product manager 😉

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