The Inmates are Running the Asylum: review and RFE
The central thesis of The Inmates are Running the Asylum by Alan Cooper is dead on: engineers get too wrapped up in their own worlds, and left entirely to their own whims can easily make a product incomprehensible to ordinary folks. For this reason alone, it’s worth reading.
But I do question parts of his thesis. He (with tongue in cheek) posits the existence of another species of human, called Homo Logicus. Stepping on to an airplane, Homo Logicus turns left into the cockpit with a million buttons but ultimate control over every aspect of the plane. Regular Homo Sapiens, on the other hand, turn right and tuck themselves into a chair–no control but at least they can relax.
But if there was only one “species” of Homo Logicus, members (like me) would never experience usability issues in software created by fellow Logicians. But ordinary fax machines give me fits. The touch-screen copier at work instills dread in my heart. And the software I need to use to file expense reports–written by enterprise software geeks probably very similar to me–is a usability nightmare. Words fail me in expressing my disdain for this steaming heap of fail.
The book is sub-titled “Why High-Tech Products Drive Us Crazy”, but one doesn’t have to look very far to find similar usability bugs in the low-tech world. Seth Godin, for example, likes to talk about different things in life that Just Don’t Work, along with reasons why. Some examples:
- airport cab stand (75 cabs, 75 people, and it takes an hour)
- “don’t operate heavy machinery” warning on dog’s prescription medicine
- excessive fine print on liability agreements–intentionally hard to read and figure out
- official “Vote for Pedro” shirts that look nothing like the ones in the movie
- more examples on the web site
If anything, I think Cooper’s work doesn’t go far enough. It is relatively short on good examples, stretching out only four examples over four chapters. If properly-designed software is so hard to come up with examples of, then there are bigger problems in play (that would need to be dealt with by something more manifesto than book).
The book now 5 years old. Perhaps it’s time for an update. Particularly in the world of web software, lots has happend in 5 years. Flickr. Gmail. Yahoo Pipes. Google Docs. Even SearchMonkey. Instead of focusing on pointing at crappy software, I’d like to see more emphasis on properly-done interfaces. More delving into nuance, and common factors behind why both high-tech and low-tech products miss the mark.
But maybe that’s just me. -m