A Review of Alan Cooper’s “The Inmates Are Running the Asylum”

“You folks have a lot of angry customers out there. How are you going to respond?” is the finishing line as well as the central question Alan Cooper is trying to answer throughout his book. Cooper is an angry guy, you can hear that in his writing. He’s fed up with the way technology treats its users. And he has found the culprit responsible for all this: software engineers.

A thesis Cooper repeats throughout his book is that engineers quietly run the show. He ascribes them passive-aggressiveness and a narrow world-view. And he has found them guilty of covertly pushing forward their own agenda: code reusability and protection of computing resources, instead of focusing on the user. The Inmates in the title, after all, refers to the engineers.

For programmers, the book can be hard to stomach. Cooper is ruthless in his assessment of the engineers’ failed attempts to design interfaces and quite often he adopts the wrong tone. His use of words is dramatic. He talks about revolutions and oppression. The analogy to class struggle is hard to miss. You know he takes this serious.

He identifies the programming world’s obsession with edge-cases as one of the culprits responsible for bad interaction design. He points out that from a technical point of view, covering a lot of potential edge-cases is important for a software to run smoothly in the long-run. But the same thinking has a detrimental effect when applied to interaction design. Interaction design is about the opposite of edge-cases. It is about cases that occur frequently because those are the ones users care about. Based on this and other examples he deduces the need for a new profession. One that focuses on the user solely: the interaction designer.

The criticism is surprising in its vehemence, especially since Cooper is a programmer himself. Often referred to as “the father of Visual Basic”, Cooper has been working with computers since the advent of microcomputers in the mid-1970s. First in his own company, Structured Systems Group, and later on at Digital Research Inc. together with Gordon Eubanks and Gary Kildall [1]. In the early 1990s, fed up with the way software was built, Cooper founded his own consulting firm, which focused on helping other companies to build user-friendly applications. During this period, Cooper developed different methods, among them goal-directed design and user personas.

But contrary to what one might expect, the book is not a detailed “how to” of user personas. Instead, it is a bold manifesto demanding the integration of interaction design into the product development cycle. Cooper could be attributed with starting a movement and establishing the role of the interaction designer. Nowadays almost any company that is somehow involved in building software employs an interaction designer (although he or she might have a different name).

Then why, might the interested reader ask, is it important to read a 15-year old book whose demands have been more or less satisfied today? Because, as for anyone, it is important for interaction designers to know their origins. History matters. And, furthermore, Cooper’s ideas are still not taken for granted in every company yet. Designing before programming. Thinking about users, goals and scenarios before thinking about databases, APIs and unit tests.

Therefore, despite its shortcomings, I clearly recommend the book. It is a must for every aspiring interaction designer, but maybe even more so for product managers and programmers. They only need to be prepared for feeling worse after reading it.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Cooper