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

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3 Replies to “The Inmates are Running the Asylum: review and RFE”

  1. I think the whole thing is just an artifact of a highly specialized society with extremely advanced division of labor. While it currently shows up for many people in software or other high tech things, this is probably just because these things are relatively new and people are not used to them yet.

    I’m not saying crappy user interfaces are ok, but if you look at e.g. the way I have to do tax filings, this very much resembles a really crappy user interface. In many areas of life you’ll run into specialist activities or topics where the specialists running the field have neither intuition nor understanding for “ordinary people” that cannot grasp what’s going on. Medicin comes to mind, or car mechanics, virtually anything related to bureaucracy, and so on.

    I think what makes High Tech stand out more is simply that it’s new. People are used to not understanding their tax filings, but with new software the surprise is bigger.

  2. “airport cab stand (75 cabs, 75 people, and it takes an hour)”

    how about:
    airport cab stand (75 cabs, 75 people, 3 dimensions, non-flying car, various logical reasons why one might not make the cab aisle infinitely wide, and it takes an hour)

    there are probably improvements that could be made in the cab queueing system, but the complaint is like a project manager complaining the engineers keeping saying that HTTP is asynchronous – more damning really because it’s a technical complaint about the technical constraints of reality that we all experience and thus should realistically all be capable of understanding.

  3. I also enjoyed Cooper’s “About Face x.0” (I think the cureent edition x= 3.0). I particularly liked “Disks are a hack”…

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